Read City of Bones Online

Authors: Martha Wells

Tags: #Dystopia, #Science Fiction, #Fantasy, #Urban Fantasy, #Apocalyptic

City of Bones

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To Scott McCullar and Nancy Buchanan, for everything

Chapter One

Somewhere else, in a room shadowed by age and death, a man readies himself to look into the future for what may be the last time.

The day was long, and Khat was bored with bargaining. He leaned on one pole of the awning and looked out into the dusty street, ignoring Arnot’s wife, who was examining their find as if she had never seen the like before and never wanted to again.

“Two days, no more,” Arnot’s wife finally said, mopping the sweat from her brow with a corner of her scarf and feigning disinterest.

Khat shook his head, irritated at this display of deliberate ignorance. His partner Sagai raised an eyebrow in eloquent comment and said, “The lady has a mischievous sense of humor, and Arnot is an honorable man. One hundred days.”

Khat smiled to himself and thought,
The lady is a thief, and Arnot is a rat’s ass
. More dust rose in the narrow street outside as pushcarts trundled by, piled high with wares destined for markets on the upper tiers. The sun had started its downward progress into late afternoon, leaving the high canyon of the street outside Arnot’s shop in shadow. The heat was still stifling under the patched awning and must be far worse in the shop’s cavelike interior, dug out of the black rock of the city’s backbone, where Arnot himself sat on his money chest and listened to his wife bargain.

The man in the shadowed room cups the fragments of bone in one hand. They are only a focus, because the power to see beyond time is inside his thoughts and his blood and his living bones, not in the dead matter in his hand.

The woman’s laughter was a humorless bark. She said, “Nothing is worth that.”

The article in question lay atop a stool, wrapped in soft cloth. It was a square piece of glazed terra-cotta floor tile, made particularly valuable by the depiction of a web-footed bird swimming in a pool filled with strange floating flowers. The colors were soft half-tones, the purplish-brown of the bird’s plumage, the blue-green color of the pond, the cream and faded yellow of the flowers. The subject matter, a waterbird that hadn’t lived since the Fringe Cities rose from the dust, and the delicate colors, impossible even for Charisat’s skilled artisans to duplicate, marked it as Ancient work, a relic of the lost times more than a thousand years ago.

Piled all around under the awning were the rest of Arnot’s wares: serving tables with faience decoration, ornamental clocks, alabaster vessels, tiny decorative boxes of valuable wood, and junk jewelry of beads, lapis, turquoise, and carnelian. There were few Ancient relics out on display here; the quality would be inside, away from the untutored eyes of casual buyers.

“We know what these tiles are fetching on the upper tiers,” Sagai said with reproof. “Don’t treat us like fools, and our price will be more reasonable.” He folded his arms, ready to wait all day if necessary.

With an ironic lift of an eyebrow, Khat added, “We only come to you first because we’re such good friends of your husband.”

There was a choking cough from within the shop’s dark interior, possibly Arnot about to launch into an attack of apoplexy. Arnot’s wife bit her lip and studied them both. Sagai was big and dark-skinned, the hair escaping from his headcloth mostly gone to gray, his blue robe and mantle somewhat frayed and shabby. He was despised as a foreigner because he came from Kenniliar Free City, but all the dealers knew he was a trained scholar and had studied the Ancients long before circumstances had forced him to work in Charisat’s relic trade. Sagai’s features were sensitive, and right now his brown eyes were liquid with humor at Arnot’s wife’s predicament.

Khat was krismen, and even lower on Charisat’s social scale than Sagai, for he had been born deep in the Waste. He was tall and leanly muscled, longish brown hair touched by red, skin browned against the sun, and a handsome face that he knew from experience was no help with Arnot’s wife, who was just as much of a professional as he and Sagai were.

But Khat could tell she was starting to weaken. He pointed out more gently, “They’re buying these on the upper tiers like cheap water. You could turn it around in the time it takes us to walk back to the Arcade.”

“Or we can take our business elsewhere,” Sagai added, frowning thoughtfully as if he was already considering which of Arnot’s competitors to go to.

Arnot’s wife ran a hand through her stringy white hair and sighed. “Twenty days.”

“Forty,” Sagai said immediately.

There was a growl from the shop’s interior, a crack and a sound of the shifting of massive bulk that seemed to indicate Arnot himself was about to appear. Arnot’s wife rolled her eyes and folded her arms over her tattered gray kaftan.

The man closes his hand on the fragments of bone, thinking of their former owner and how unwillingly he parted with them.

Arnot appeared in the arched doorway, glared at the two men from under lowered brows, and advanced toward the tile. As he reached for it, Khat said, “By the edges.”

Arnot regarded him a moment in silence. Legend said krismen eye color changed according to mood. Khat’s eyes had lightened to gray-green. Dangerous. Arnot lifted the tile gently by the edges, and turned it, so the light filtering through the red awning caught the colors and made them glow almost with life. The tiles were one of the few relics that even the cleverest forgers hadn’t the skill to copy; before the rise of the Waste, that tile had graced some Ancient’s fountain court, and Arnot knew it.

The dealer considered, then set the tile gently down again. He nodded approval to his wife, and she dug in the leather pouch at her waist for tokens.

Something made Khat glance out into the street.

Three men watched them from the edge of the awning. One wore the robes and concealing veil of a Patrician, and the other two were dressed in the rough shirts and protective leather leggings of wagon dock laborers. An upper-tier Patrician down in the market quarters of the Fifth Tier meant one thing—Trade Inspector.

Arnot’s wife, caught in the act of passing over the brass counters, each representing several days of artisan’s labor, froze and stared at the intruders, her gray brows coming together in consternation. Sagai had his hand out, Khat and Arnot were obviously giving their countenance to the deal, and the merchandise lay in plain view on the stool.

It took them all several moments to remember that there was nothing illegal about what they were doing.

Smiling, the man looks up at his companion across the table and says, “It’s an intriguing game, where one player sees the board and the other is blindfolded.”

“Yes,” she replies. “But which player are we?”

Arnot nudged his wife, and she dropped the counters into Sagai’s palm. Sagai tucked them away inside his robe, and exchanged a look with Khat. Their expressions betrayed nothing; it would have been a mistake to show any kind of fear.

Arnot took his wife’s elbow and steered her toward the door of the shop, a protective gesture Khat was surprised to see from the cutthroat dealer. Arnot growled, “We close early today.”

Khat exchanged a look with Sagai to make sure they were both thinking along the same lines, then stepped out from under the awning. One of the dockworkers moved to intercept him and said, “Are you Khat, the relic dealer from the Sixth Tier?”

The man was smiling at him unpleasantly. He was big for a lower-tier city dweller and blond, his short-cropped hair greasy with sweat and blown sand. The one who hung back with the Patrician was short and stocky, wearing a red headcloth. He carried an air gun slung casually over one shoulder. The copper ball beneath the stock that was the gun’s air reservoir had been recently polished, and the skeleton butt had shiny brass fittings.

Khat didn’t answer, and Sagai shouldered his way gently past the dockworker before the man could react, saying, “Excuse us, gentlemen.”

Khat followed Sagai up the narrow canyon of the street. Walls of black rock and mud brick rose up on either side of them, with narrow doorways on the lower levels and shallow balconies and windows on the upper, some with cheap tin shutters painted with desert flowers or luck signs. Clothes hung out to air festooned some of the upper floors, and sewer stink was suspended in the still, hot air. The three men followed them, though not fast enough to be actually chasing them, and the rifle wielder did nothing overtly threatening. Sagai muttered, “And the day was going so well, too.”

Trade Inspectors would never have let them walk away. But Khat and Sagai had no Patrician clients and no reason to expect any, with rifle-wielding guards or without. “ ‘Was’ is right,” Khat answered, irritated. Their pursuers were still too close for them to dodge down any connecting alleys.

The street widened into an open court, where a fountain carved into the shape of an upended tortoise shell played and the sewer stink was not quite so bad. There was still no opportunity to bolt. Grim now, Sagai said, “They know your name, obviously. They may know where we live. We’ll have to talk to them.”

Khat couldn’t think of a better idea, so he took a seat on the fountain’s wide edge to wait for their pursuers to catch up, and Sagai rested one sandaled foot next to him.

Women in light-colored kaftans filled jugs and buckets at the fountain and lingered to talk, old men sat on the stone balconies above them and smoked clay pipes, and a shrieking gang of children tore by, scattering a peddler’s collection of baskets and stampeding some stray goats. An old woman sat on a faded red rug near the fountain, telling fortunes by burning fragments of bone in a brazier. The old man who kept the fountain casually strolled toward them and shook his clay bowl of coins and tokens suggestively, reminding them to pay before using the water.

The Patrician and the hireling with the rifle stopped several paces away, the blond man coming nearer to confront them. Khat lounged at ease on the fountain rim, and Sagai regarded the man’s approach with polite interest. None of the other inhabitants of the court fled at the sight of the possible altercation, but the women who had not been disturbed by Khat and Sagai’s presence at the fountain found reasons to move on, and the water keeper retreated across the court.

The rifle’s odd
, Khat decided. It was an upper-tier weapon, used by lictors assigned to court officials or paid vigils. Even bonetakers and cutthroat thieves could only afford to carry knives. Presumably the Patrician could have hired the dockworkers and given them the weapon to defend him, but it was hard to believe he would be quite that trusting. It was more likely that the pair were private vigils as much accustomed to the upper tier as their master.
And who are they protecting him from
? he wondered.
The septuagenarian fountain keeper maybe, or the beggar woman telling fortunes
? This was only the Fifth Tier, not the Eighth. Still smiling, the blond man spoke to Khat. “I’m Kythen Seul, and I know who you are.”

On
the table is an iron bowl half-filled with hot coals. The bones will be burned there as the man looks past the slow turning of time. He does not know the reason for this except that a symbolic death by fire seems to aid the process
.

His companion watches.

Well, Khat hadn’t tried to hide it. He said, “Then why did you ask?” He felt his theory was confirmed. Seul spoke Tradetongue too well for a dockworker. Khat looked over at the Patrician, who seemed to have a slight build under all that heavy cloth. His inner robes were rough silk without beadwork or embroidery, the outer mantle of tougher cotton, and the long gauze veil was wound around his head and over the lower half of his face. Not ostentatious, unless you considered how far such materials had to be ported across the Waste to reach the Charisat markets. Khat wore a light shirt over tight trousers and soft leather boots, with his robe folded back and tied off around his waist, and to anyone accustomed to the robes and heavy veiling affected by Charisat’s upper-tier nobility, this was practically undressed. The krismen needed less protection from the sun than he did relief from the heat; it was cooler out on the Waste than it was on the black stone of Charisat’s streets in the afternoon.

Seul displayed his tolerance of uppity krismen by ignoring the question. He glanced pointedly at Sagai and said, “Your friend can go.”

“Oh, but we have business still to do together,” Sagai said, as if he thought it suggestion rather than command. “I prefer to stay.”

Seul’s eyes hardened, but the smile didn’t disappear. Khat was beginning to dislike that smile. Seul inclined his head back toward the Patrician, and said, “The Honored needs a knowledgeable guide to take him to the Ancient Remnant on the Tersalten Flat.”

Sagai frowned. “The one to the west?”

“Yes.”

Khat had done this before, but usually for scholars from some other city or the Academia, and he didn’t feel accommodating today.

“If you already know where it is,” he said patiently, but with the patience usually reserved for a child, “why do you need a guide?”

“I don’t need a guide.” Seul’s voice took on a testy edge. “I prefer one.”

“And you want me to suggest someone?” Khat looked mildly confused. As a way to drive someone wild he had found this was second to few, especially when what the person was trying to tell you was as plain as daylight.

“No, I want you.”

Khat smiled back at him for the first time, a particularly krismen expression that revealed pointed canines and had an unequivocal meaning. “The whorehouse is down that way.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sagai glance briefly skyward, as if asking the air spirits to witness what he had to deal with on a daily basis. His partner had also unobtrusively rested a hand on the knife hilt concealed by a fold of his robe.

Seul’s smile came close to evaporating, but he only said, “The Honored doesn’t ask for free service. He intends to pay.”

Before Khat could answer, Sagai interposed, “Might one ask why?”

“He’s curious.” The smile was back with renewed strength. “He’s a student of the past.”

The man drops the bones into the glowing coals in the iron bowl, and they yellow, then blacken as the heat takes them, and thin veins of smoke rise into the still air of the time-darkened room.

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