It’s May, and therefore time for another monthly snippet from the next Egil and Nix novel, A Discourse in Steel (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 took a length of thin, strong rope from his satchel of needful things – he always carried several lengths of the best line he could buy – and bound the man’s hands and ankles. Then he went back up to the bar, half-filled a tankard with ale, returned to the cellar and threw it in the man’s face. The man sputtered and blinked awake. He had small eyes, too close together, a large nose and a narrow chin specked with a day’s growth of whiskers.
He eyed Nix, Egil, the cellar, swallowed hard. Nix could see thoughts moving behind his eyes.
“Yeah, you’re in a bit of it,” Nix said. “I’ve been there.”
“It was just a burn job,” the man said, his voice nasally. “I do it, I get paid, and I don’t know nothing more than that.”
Egil harrumphed and Nix tsked.
“Burn jobs don’t call for barring doors, now do they?”
The man colored but his expression remained defiant.
A symbol hung from a leather lanyard around the man’s neck. Nix grabbed it, yanked it off, and eyed the charm: a stiletto with a coin balanced on the tip. Aster’s symbol. Nix shared a knowing look with Egil.
“This here’s a guild boy, Egil.”
“Fakkin’ sneak priests and fools,” Egil said.
“I don’t know nothing about a guild,” the man said.
Nix tossed the charm at the man and hit him in his overlarge nose. “Not too smart, are you?”
“That’s just something I found,” the man said, pointing with his chin at the charm. He looked up at Egil’s head, at the Eye of Ebenor. “But speakin’ of fools and priests.”
“He’s a funny one,” Egil said, and glared. “I don’t like funny ones.”
“And speaking of tattoos,” Nix said. He pushed the man prone, rolled him over, checked the man’s hands, his arms, cut off his shirt to bare his chest.
“You at least gonna buy me a drink first?” the man said. “You don’t even know my name.”
“Your name’s slubber, and that’s clear enough,” Nix said, and pulled him back into a sitting position. “No magic ink, which makes you too dumb for the Committee, yeah?”
“The what?” the man said, all innocence.
“Who gave the order?”
“Order? I was offered coin. That’s it. I don’t even know the names of them others I was with.”
Egil said, “The one burned alive on the street is named ‘pig meat’.”
“Hard way to go,” the man said, shaking his head.
“There are harder ways,” Egil said, his tone ominous.
“I’d ask you why you put a flame to the inn–” Nix said.
“Our inn,” Egil said.
“Our inn,” Nix corrected. “But I already know.”
The man sneered. “Let me tell you something, slubbers. This ain’t no inn. This is a shop for running slags and all-fours-boys.”
Nix cuffed him on the head, hard. “Mind your tongue, prick. You’re already on the blade’s edge.”
The man glared up at Nix, his rat nose twitching.
“What do we need from this slubber?” Nix asked Egil.
“Ask him where the guild house is,” Egil said.
The man guffawed.
Nix faced the guild man. “You heard the big, intimidating, ill-tempered man. Where’s the guild house?”
“I don’t nothing about a guild house.” The man’s rat face turned sly. “But I wager that’s not something safe to know ’less you’re supposed to. I wager knowing something like that when you shouldn’t might, I don’t know, get your place burned down. Lot o’ things like that.”
Nix grabbed the man by his hair. “I find it best not to anger the priest.”
The man glared and seemed inclined to keep talking, so Nix released him.
“As you will, then.”
“I hear the guild,” the man said. “They keep coming and coming until things finish up like they want them finished. And they come back for those that hurt their men. That’s what I hear.”
“Nobody’s coming for you,” Egil said.
The man jutted out his chin. “We’ll see.”
Egil approached the man and despite his superficial insouciance, the man quailed at the priest’s approach. But Egil only turned him roughly around so that his back was to the door. Nix looked a question at him. Egil mouthed the word “Mere” and Nix understood. He nodded and Egil exited the cellar to get Mere.
After he left, Nix said, “I always heard guild boys were competent. Then I see a cock-up like this and have to wonder.”
“Fak you. You got lucky.”
“Tell you something else,” Nix said, his tone serious. He grabbed the man by the hair, jerked his head back, put his lips to his ear. “There were twenty people in this inn and I care about all of them. You and your crew will answer for that.”
“You have no idea what you’re doing here, bungholes.”
Nix punched him in the head, knocking him on his side. He struggled to keep his voice under control. “I know exactly what I’m doing. The guild is shite to me.”
The man winced at the pain, blinked, licked his lips. “We’ll see.”
“There’s only one thing saving you, slubber, and that’s that I’ve had enough of regrets in recent days. Hard to say with the priest, though. He’s not as forgiving as me. Strange in a priest, don’t you think?”
The man grinned. “No. I know a few priests just like that.”
The cellar door creaked open and Egil walked in, Merelda small behind him. Nix eyed Egil, who nodded, then Merelda, who eyed the prisoner. Nix gave her a nod of encouragement. Egil came around to face the guild man.
“Where’s the guildhouse?” Egil asked.
The man spit. “That again? I told you–”
Merelda closed her eyes, furrowed her brow. Nix imagined her reaching into the guild man’s mind.
“What is this?” the man said, blinking rapidly. “What is–”
“Where is the guildhouse?” Egil said. “Tell us.”
“I don’t–” The man’s words slurred. His eyes rolled. “I can’t–”
Mere put a hand to her temple. Nix imagined her reaching in his mind, grabbing at his thoughts, unspooling them like weaver’s thread.
Egil leaned over him. “Where. Is. The. Guildhouse?”
The man screamed, shook his head, rocked back and forth.
Merelda took a step closer to him, her pale face wrinkled in concentration. A drop of blood leaked from one of her nostrils but she seemed not to notice.
“No, no, no!” said the man.
“It’s on Mandin Way,” Mere said, her voice cold, her eyes still closed, her face still twisted up with effort. “Used to be an inn called the Squid. I can… see the layout.”
“I know it,” Nix said.
“Who is that?” the man said, trying to look over his shoulder. “Is that the bitch faytor?”
Merelda took another step toward the man. Blood flowed from both her nostrils.
The man fell to his side and shrieked, long and loud, and Nix hoped there were no Watch patrols on the street outside.
“There are many guards there, always,” Mere said. “There are two levels under it, a chapel, training rooms, safe rooms, a torture chamber, cells. The sewers near Mandin Way and a guarded tunnel in the bank of the Meander give access to the lower levels.
She took another step closer to the man, who now moaned and writhed on the ground, blood coming from his own nose. Merelda’s nosebleed worsened but she showed no sign of stopping.
Nix put a hand on her arm. “That’s enough.”
She whirled on him, projected, He tried to kill us!
He winced at the anger in her mental voice. “I know. You’re hurting yourself, though. We have what we need. That’s enough. That’s enough.”
Egil took her by the arm. “It’s all right. You did good.”
She stared at them, blinking, her eyes welling with tears. She looked down at the man, who moaned and muttered in a puddle of snot and blood and spit.
“Fak him,” she said, tears falling down her cheeks”
“Aye, that,” Egil said softly, and led her to the cellar door. He closed it behind her and he and Nix shared a look. Nix nodded, went to the guild man and pulled him up and around. Blood smeared his face below his nose.
“You don’t look half as amused as you did. Huh.”
The guildsman’s eyes twisted into a glare. “Fak you. You don’t know what you done here. Fak you.”
Nix sighed. “You’d think more people would fak me. I do have a certain charm. Alas, the world is unfair.”
The man spit snot and blood. “You keep on with this and it’s gonna get more unfair for and yours real quick-like. You hear? Now let me go.”
Nix looked over to Egil, eyebrows raised. “He’s an arrogant prick, isn’t he? Even bound and bleeding and after what just happened and he still can’t shut his hole. Is this what it’s like to talk to me?”
Egil shrugged and grunted, his hard eyes fixed on the guildsman.
Nix looked back at the guildsman. “Usually I’m on the other end of this, hands bound, bloody, wondering what’s going to happen next. I like this better.”
“You won’t for long,” the guildsman said.
“This really is no time get all cocky, yeah? Makes me irritable. And I’m not even easily irritated. My friend there, though, the big priest, he is easily irritated. He looks downright irritable this very moment. Irked, even. So.” Nix considered, made up his mind, and stood. “He’s going to beat you now.”
The man’s eyes went to Egil’s hulking form, the priest’s ham fists, and his arrogance crumbled. “What’s that now?”
“Parts of you are gonna bleed,” Nix said. “Probably that nose again. Other parts will probably break. But unfair is the world, yeah? Woe and alack.”
“Wait, now. Wait,” the man said, struggling against his bonds as Egil stepped toward him. “That ain’t necessary, is it? We could–”
“Oh, but it is necessary,” Nix said, his voice the soft, cold sound of a blade slipping its scabbard. “And I’m going to tell you why – because you fakkin’ deserve it for what you did, you slubber prick bunghole.”
“There’s no need for torture, now!”
Nix grabbed the man by his shirt and gave him a shake.
“This isn’t torture, slubber. We already know what we need to know. This is punishment.” He stepped aside to make room for Egil, then put his hands on his hips and glared contempt at the guildsman. “Make it hurt bad, Egil.”
“They’ll come for you! Both of you for this! And everyone else in this fakkin’ inn.”
“No, they won’t,” Egil said, grabbing the man by his shirt and jerking him to his feet. “Because we’re coming for them. You boys fakked up, crossing us.”
The man grinned darkly, his teeth stained with blood. “You go at the guildhouse, you die. You won’t come back from that.”
Nix said, “I was just telling someone the other day that our lot in life seems to be to go where others say we shouldn’t.”
Egil’s first punch put a few teeth and a lot of blood on the cellar floor. His second cracked ribs and left the guildsman crumpled on the floor, moaning.
Nix watched the rest of it unfold, knowing they were both giving themselves more to regret, more they’d someday have to look back on and face squarely. He decided he could live with that.