The Spider's War


By Daniel Abraham

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The epic conclusion to The Dagger and The Coin series, perfect for fans of George R.R. Martin.

Lord Regent Geder Palliako's great war has spilled across the world, nation after nation falling before the ancient priesthood and weapon of dragons. But even as conquest follows conquest, the final victory retreats before him like a mirage. Schism and revolt begin to erode the foundations of the empire, and the great conquest threatens to collapse into a permanent conflict of all against all.

In Carse, with armies on all borders, Cithrin bel Sarcour, Marcus Wester, and Clara Kalliam are faced with the impossible task of bringing a lasting peace to the world. Their tools: traitors high in the imperial army, the last survivor of the dragon empire, and a financial scheme that is either a revolution or the greatest fraud in the history of the world.

For more from Daniel Abraham, check out:
The Dagger and the Coin
The Dragon's Path
The King's Blood
The Tyrant's Law
The Widow's House
The Spider's War


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Table of Contents

A Preview of SNAKEWOOD

A Preview of HOPE & RED

Orbit Newsletter

Copyright Page

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Captain Marcus Wester

Like wine poured into water, the war stained the world even where the actual fighting had not yet reached.

Carse, the greatest city of Northcoast, looked out over a winter sea. The sky was the grey of snow, the water the grey of slate. No army had crossed the kingdom's borders, but one camped in Birancour to the south, and another—smaller—was said to be marching in the swamps near Kaltfel to the east. There were rumors that Lord Regent Geder Palliako rode with that second one, that the spirits of the dead had swollen his host to the largest the world had ever known but only at night, that the forces of Antea were poised to sweep over the kingdom like a plague wind. For all Marcus knew, it might be true. Everything else had been strange enough these last few years that drawing a line between groundless fear and plausible scenario had become difficult where it wasn't impossible.

It didn't change the job.

He hunched into his cloak, walking through the same frost-touched streets he had as a younger man. His feet ached, and his right knee had started to click sometimes, but it didn't hurt yet. The poisoned sword hung across his back, eroding his health and making his blood watery and thin. He felt the weight of years slowing him, making each day a bit harder than the one before it. Death was constant, inevitable, and coming. His own, and everybody else's. Age and maturity meant he was aware of the fact, that was all.

Beside him, Yardem stood tall, his canine face alert, his ears canted forward. There was grey at their tips. They were both getting old, but the years didn't seem to weigh down the Tralgu as much. So maybe his bleakness was just the sword.

A boy wheeled a cart ahead of them, the steam from it billowing and filling the air with the scent of burning wood and roasting chestnuts. Marcus lifted a hand, and the guards shifted to walk around the cart. Marcus had seen more ambushes than he cared to remember, and this wasn't one. The carter nodded to them as they passed. No hidden blades appeared in the shadows, no sudden battle cries split the air. Marcus was vaguely disappointed.

"I don't know who we are anymore," he said.

Yardem flicked his ear, considering. The earrings jingled. "You're Marcus Wester, sir. I'm Yardem Hane. Those back there are Enen and Halvill. The one at the back's called Little Fish, but I couldn't say why."

"Not what I meant. Used to be I was captain of the guard for the Medean bank in Porte Oliva, but seeing there isn't a branch in Porte Oliva anymore, makes it a bit strange. Do we work for Cithrin? Is she still part of the bank? There's no chain of command anymore."

"We sleep in the bank's rooms and eat from the bank's kitchen," Yardem pointed out. "At a guess, we work for them."

"Do they pay us?"

"They do."

"Do they pay us money?"

The Tralgu flicked a thoughtful ear. "Granted, that's more a question, sir."

The chest that Enen and Halvill carried between them was hard oak bound in iron. The lock was thick and well made. It would have taken a man with a crowbar half an hour to crack it open. Everything about it—including the five guards walking through the chill grey streets—indicated that whatever it contained was important. Valuable. Everyone Marcus passed—the carter boy, the old woman in leather and rags trundling through the intersection behind them, even the city watch—would see their burden being treated as if it were precious as gold. And it would add, the idea went, to the story that the yellow sheets of paper with their arcane script and the shining flecks in among the fibers were actually worth something.

Cithrin had called them letters of transfer, but Komme Medean had instructed everyone else to use the name war gold. It was a name meant to weave the idea of real coinage with the fear of the imperial armies at the borders, as if by the magic of pretending the drawing of a gold coin was the same as the thing itself, Northcoast and Carse would be somehow safer from the killing blades and tainted priests.

And the hell of it was, for all Marcus could see it might work. Certainly the sheets that he and his guards were given at the end of each week traded for food and drink, a launderer's services or a cobbler's. And Cithrin, sitting deep in the great brick keep that was the holding company, seemed busier than she'd ever been as a simple banker. And still, he felt more like an actor pretending a length of painted wood was a battle-axe than a soldier guarding treasure.

The scriptorium had a wide blue door and wooden walls with carvings of a dozen different scripts worked into them. Snow covered the tiled roof, and icicles clung to the eaves, thin tendrils hanging from the thicker stumps where they'd been broken to keep them from slaughtering random passersby. Marcus rapped on the doorway and waited, his breath ghosting before him. A woman's voice called from within, then a scrape came, and the door swung open. The master scribe ushered them into a workroom. Twenty desks, each with someone sitting at it. All of the full guild members at work. Thick-bodied, ruddy Firstblood; pale, sprout-thin Cinnae; scaled Jasuru, all with reed-thin pens scratching gently at papers. Four iron braziers warmed the air almost to the point of comfort but not quite. In the back, he knew, were thirty more apprentices with less heat and smaller workplaces. A harpist played in the back of the room in an attempt to keep boredom at bay. A Jasuru woman glanced up at them, her bronze scales glowing in the light, and then went back to her work.

"This way, Captain Wester," the master scribe said, and Marcus followed her back to a smaller office. The papers waiting there didn't have the yellow dye of war gold, but they were tools of conflict just the same. They stood on the desk, square pages tied in twine. Marcus slid one around to read the top sheet.


The abominations that have corrupted Antea and brought war to the world are powerful, but they are not invincible. Their power is in their voices and in their blood, but they have been defeated before and they can be defeated again.

It went on. Simple, unadorned letters that outlined the dangers that the priests posed and how to drown out their voices, fight battles deaf to their commands, and avoid the contagion of tiny black spiders that spilled out like rotten blood when you cut one open. The words were simple to the point of simplistic, but they were a place to start. He ran his thumbnail hissing up one corner of the stack.

"Three thousand copies," the master scribe said, and there was more than a little pride in her voice. "We will need more paper soon."

"There's a dozen people on Sisters' Street taking old books apart and washing off the ink as fast as you all are putting it back on," Marcus said.

He thought she flinched a little at the words. It would be hard, he supposed, for someone in her position to accept the idea that her work was less permanent than she liked to imagine it. But welcome to the world. It wasn't as if any of the wars he'd fought in stayed won either.

"Where are these going?" she asked, changing the subject.

"This batch? Asterilhold, same as the last. We've got a fast boat ready to carry it along the coast and a few names in the city that might be open to a little life-threatening sedition."

Yardem coughed gently. Marcus took the meaning behind it and forced himself to smile. It wasn't this poor woman's fault he was in a mood as foul as last month's milk. He lifted the brick of papers from the desk and nodded to Enen and Halvill. They placed the chest gently onto the cleared desk, and Marcus unlocked it. The war gold was a bit longer than it was wide, embossed by a press that existed only in the bank, signed by Komme Medean and King Tracian's master of coin. A few carefully worded lines promised that king and crown would honor the transferred debt, and a line of cipher made it possible to check the note against forgeries. Yardem handed the papers to the master scribe, and she accepted them with a small, formal bow. Her hesitation was almost imperceptible, but it was there. Yardem's ears shifted toward her inquiringly.

"Are they helping?" she asked.

"Maybe," Marcus said. "It's throwing seeds to the wind. A stack like this in every city they hold? Give the people they've conquered a better idea what they're facing and how to stand against it? Not to mention that it aims at the snake's head."

"Snake's head?"

"He means the priests, ma'am," Yardem said. "One of the things we hope the letters will do is keep the focus on the priests so that people won't be distracted into other conflicts."

The scribe smiled, and her eyes seemed older than her years. "I don't care if they all burn each other to nothing, I just hope you can keep them from doing it here."

Yardem's gaze flicked to Marcus, expecting or dreading a cutting remark from him. But Marcus didn't have one to hand. It was a bloodthirsty and selfish sentiment, but it wasn't an uncommon one. Charity and compassion were easier when there was no sense of threat to poison them, and the world was woven from threats these nights. In other circumstances, the scribe would likely have thought a bit more before she hoped death and fire for the whole world, only not her city. It was war, though. It stained everything.

When, as a younger man, Marcus had lived in Carse, the taproom had just been a taproom and the field beyond it only an odd strip of commons. Since the dragon had come, wounded and morose, the place had become the most prestigious meeting house in the city. Someone had built a massive wooden perch on the commons so that Inys could rest there and look into the taproom's yard. The tables within the building were packed close, adding the heat and stink of bodies to the smoke and fire in the grate. The meat was probably pork, but spiced to a tear-inducing heat that could have hidden anything. Marcus leaned his elbows against the table and tried to ignore the way the bar boy kept jostling him as he squeezed by.

"What's the point of having a cart if you've nothing to put in it?" Mikel said. The thin actor's hands spread across the table in something approaching supplication. The raw emotion over small issues was something Marcus had grown used to in his travels with the troupe. Soldiers tended to be more stoic than actors.

"Where are you going to put your props and costumes if you haven't got a cart?" Cary snapped. Since they'd lost Smit in the fall of Porte Oliva, her temper had been shorter. Marcus liked her better for it. Mikel's hands retreated from the surface of the table.

"I hope we can agree that both will be needed before the company is made whole," Kit said. "I think we might be better listing out which plays we can perform in our present circumstances, and then determining which replacements will add most to the repertoire."

"Like another actor?" Cary asked. "Is that what you mean?"

"I suppose it is one thing I mean," Kit said, only the way he formed the words was like warm flannel on a cold night. Cary looked away. Kit turned a concerned expression to Marcus. "Are you well, my friend?"

"Why wouldn't I be?"

Yardem cleared his throat. "You made a noise, sir."

"I did?"

"Yes, sir."

"A noise?"

"Something between a laugh and a cough, sir. Could have sounded like sneering to someone who didn't know better."

"Didn't notice doing it," Marcus said. "Sorry. Must have been in my own head too much. Nasty place, that."

The actors were all looking at him now, and all with different shades of concern. Soldiers didn't tend to do that either.

"I'm fine," Marcus said, more defensively than he'd intended.

"He'll be better in a few days," Yardem said.

"I will?"

"Yes, sir."

"And why's that?"

"Today's Merian's name day."

"Ah," Marcus said. The beer was warm and a little bitter. He shrugged. "I'll be better in a few days."

A flicker of understanding passed through the troupe crowded around the little table. Nothing spoken, but a moment's understanding and companionship. A grief acknowledged and shared almost without the need of communication at all. That, at least, was a thing soldiers did as well. Marcus listened for a while more. Cary and Mikel, Sandr and Charlit Soon and Hornet, all of them talking through the next steps for the company they had been and the one they would soon become. Marcus took another few bites of the spiced whatever-it-was, finished his beer, and took a folded slip of war gold from his belt to pay for it all.

In the yard, a thin, resentful snow fell from a low, grey sky. On the perch in the middle of the field, Inys, the last dragon, hunched and played disconsolately with the carcass of a bull. It was like watching a five-year-old fuss with boiled vegetables. The dragon lifted his eyes to Marcus, let forth a small, stinking gout of flame by way of greeting, and then went back to batting the corpse across the frozen ground. Marcus leaned against the black wood fence, the chill of it seeping into his sleeves. The moon, if there was one, was eaten by clouds and mist. The greatest city of Northcoast endured the darkness and the cold, waiting for a day that would come as pale as it was brief. Inside the taproom, someone struck up a song, and a beery chorus rose. The sound grew louder when the door behind him opened and quieted a degree when it shut. He felt the looming presence of Yardem at his side without having to turn and look.

"You know," Marcus said, "I keep hearing how other people have suffered terrible losses and then years pass and things change and they heal over it. Girl who falls in love with a bad-hearted man doesn't always end up at the bottom of a cliff, no matter what the songs say. Often as not, she's married to someone else five years on, and the bad-hearted man's just something that gets brought up when she's spatting with the new one."

"Can happen," Yardem said.

"And then there's me, where it just never seems to get better."

"It doesn't, sir."

"Ever wonder why that is?"

Yardem's earrings jingled as his ears flicked. "I have some theories, sir."

"Do you? Well. Keep 'em to yourself."

"Was my plan."

The winter wind shifted, pushing snowflakes at him like little handfuls of sand. Marcus squinted into the cold and ignored it. The ice might make him a little blind, but the chances were thin that he and Yardem were going to be ambushed in sight of the dragon they'd escorted to Northcoast. Even if they were, the worst that would happen was they'd all be killed.

He tried to imagine Merian here with him. And Alys. He could hardly recall the shapes of their faces some nights. All that was left was a sense of overwhelming love and overwhelming loss that had names and memories built into it. His daughter's determined smile when she'd taken her first step. His wife's arm around his sleeping waist. Years ago. Decades. They were dead. They didn't miss him. But he'd have cheerfully slaughtered anyone who tried to relieve him of the wounds they'd left behind.

"Made that noise again, sir."

"I know," Marcus said. "It ever strike you that we're doing the same thing as they are?"

"No, sir. It hasn't."

"I just mean the mythical spider goddess and all her priests' hairwash about what history was and what the future'll be and how it all fits together. They're just making up stories and getting everyone to act like they're true. No real stone to build on anywhere."

"That's fact, sir."

"How are Cithrin and her paper gold any different? We're telling a story and talking people into forgetting that it's all something we made up. Then we're using what we've snowed them into thinking in order to make the world the shape we want it to be."

For a long moment, they stood in silence with only the winter wind to reply. Inys, tiring of the game, scooped the dead animal into his gullet and swallowed massively before tucking his head under his great battle-tattered wing. Muffled by the snow, distant footsteps came nearer.

"I still see some distinctions," Yardem said, but then Halvill burst into the yard. White snow dotted his broad black chitin scales and his inner eyelids flicked open and closed in agitation.

"Captain Wester. Yardem. You're wanted, both of you, back at the holding company."

Marcus looked up into Yardem's wide, considering eyes. "What's at issue?"

"It's Barriath Kalliam, sir. He's come back from Sara-sur-Mar."

"Ah," Marcus said. "So the pirate admiral's finished presiding over the bounty board already, has he? Well, I suppose we should be glad he didn't get himself killed doing it."

"No sir," Halvill said. Then, "I mean, yes sir. I mean, he hasn't come alone."

Marcus stood, seeing the excitement in Halvill's stance clearly for the first time through the veil of his own unease. He felt his spine grow a little straighter, the weight of the sword on his shoulder not so heavy.

"Didn't come alone?" Marcus said.

"No, sir," Halvill said. "He's brought his mother."

Cithrin Bel Sarcour of the Medean Bank

All the money in the world. Even now, with winter's progress turning the war sluggish, it was the thought that kept her awake in the night. All the money in the world.

Creating debt was nothing new to her. Conjuring an absence of money was as simple as laying any wager at odds. Should storm or piracy intervene, a weight of silver paid for insurance on a ship might call forth twenty of its kind. To create an obligation for money greater than the actual coins in the coffers was nothing more exotic than a default. It happened, if not constantly, at least often.

But to reverse that, to create letters of transfer that summoned the idea of gold—the function of it—without need of the coin itself, still left her giddy. From the remnants of the fortune from her branch of the Medean bank, she had purchased a debt that would never be repaid, and from that debt she had made all the money in the world. As much as she could print, so long as she kept the confidence of the merchants and tradesmen, nobles and artisans whose custom she had changed.

All the other forms were being kept as they had been. The letters were kept in the same strongboxes that the coin had been. They bore the image of the coins they represented. They traded as coins would trade. King Tracian's master of coin was even coming around to the idea of accepting them for taxes, which would, she believed, seal them forever as the legitimate equivalent of gold. She had even heard of money changers weighing the papers as if the heft of the pages themselves signified anything. It was a kind of grand theater piece where the whole kingdom—and Narinisle and Herez now as well—ate imaginary food and was miraculously nourished by the exercise.

And because of it, things that had once been impossible were now within reach.

When first she and Isadau had plotted their war in Porte Oliva, desperation had driven them. The breadth and varieties of strategy had been immense. Did the enemy need to cross land to reach you? Offer a guaranteed high price to the farmers along the dragon's roads for cotton and tobacco, and when the army came to loot the farms, there would be no food to eat. Did the enemy outnumber you? Hire mercenaries wise in the ways of the battlefield and warned against the poisoned voices of the spider priests. Buy ore and drown what couldn't be used so that Antea and Geder Palliako could forge fewer weapons. Post bounties against the enemy on every front—Elassae, Sarakal, the Free Cities. Even cities of Birancour that hadn't yet shared Porte Oliva's fate. Let the enemy face a silent army of the desperate and greedy that you only had to pay.

They had been constrained by the gold in their coffers then. Now that the gates of possibility had opened, Cithrin's time was spent less generating plans than with putting them in action. Bounty boards were fast and easy. A single local agent in an occupied city could inspire any number of actions against the enemy simply by setting a price on them. Or, if the enemy forces within cities like Nus and Inentai and Suddapal proved too dangerous, some nearby hamlet in Borja or the Keshet could be converted to a base.

Hiring mercenaries was slower than that, but in the long term more effective. The paid blades were for the most part between contracts for the winter. Those who were not subjects of Northcoast or Herez or Narinisle might demand coin rather than the letters of transfer, but Cithrin was confident that she could buy hard coin with credit if she found the right discount rate. It wasn't as though the gold of Northcoast was needed in the kingdom any longer. Not if she had her way about it. Fixing prices on ore and inedible crops, while ultimately more powerful, took a greater time to see results. She found herself wishing that victory against the enemy might be a matter of years, just so she could see all her schemes enacted.

She sat in her workroom in the holding company's compound, the dim, fitful light of winter that came through the window adding blue to the buttery yellow light of her candles. Her ledgers piled the desk, and maps lay unrolled and tacked to the walls. A bottle of wine still half-full stood forgotten beside a plate of cheese and hard sausage. In her small space, the world opened like a blossom in springtime, visible only to her. And to people who had the trick of seeing the world as she saw it.

From Inentai, reports said the empire's strength was faltering. At Kiaria, the mountain stronghold of the Timzinae race, the armies of Antea had met defeat even with the power of the spider priests. Like a child who had never learned restraint, Geder Palliako had spread his might so wide that it had grown thin and brittle. The war was the widest and swiftest anyone had ever seen, and the price it had demanded was terrible. The cities it had taken from her—Vanai, Suddapal, Porte Oliva—still ached like a lost limb. The Timzinae taken into slavery, their children imprisoned as surety of their good behavior, suffered and died on the farms of the Antean Empire even as she sat, warm and safe in Carse.

To sow chaos among the enemy now, with enemy forces spread so wide and schisms beginning to form among the priesthood of the spider goddess, was less than blowing aside a feather. The map of the war was a portrait of overreach.

In any other conflict, it would have given her hope.

There had been a time, not even very long ago, when winning a war had meant crushing an enemy, killing them, lighting their cities afire. She, like the others around her, had imagined redeeming the world with the point of a dagger. It was, after all, the story everyone told of how a war ended: a righteous victor, a conquered evil, order restored. It was a lie in every particular. Every war was the precursor for the wars that followed, a slaughter that justified the slaughters to come. And the spiders that tainted the priests' blood were a tool designed by a brilliant, twisted mind to sow this violence. They were the living embodiment of war without end, a promise of permanent victory, infinitely postponed. To imagine tools—even her own tools—turned to some different solution was like trying to wake from a nightmare. She failed more often than she liked.

"I find myself looking through a scheme," she said, gesturing to Isadau with a cup of steaming tea, "and chortling over how it will break Geder's army or ruin his supply lines or give weapons to the traditional families in Nus. And I realize I'm doing it again. I'm looking for ways to win the fight, not to end it."

The Timzinae woman smiled her gentle smile. From their first shared flight from Elassae and then Birancour to now had hardly been more than a year, but it sat on Isadau's black-scaled face like decades. The greyness at the edges of her chitinous plates made her seem fragile. "There may need to be a certain amount of winning," she said.

"I know that," Cithrin said. "But I don't think past it. I get as far as That'll show the bastards and then I just… stop. It's frustrating."

Isadau sipped her own tea. The steam curled up around her face, softer than clouds. "The first enemy is the priesthood," she said, as if she were agreeing. "If we can find a way to defeat them…"

The frustration in Cithrin's gut knotted itself tighter. "Then what? Say we did find a way to drive them all back to whatever hole they've been living in since the dragons fell. Would that end our problems?"

"The critical ones, yes," Isadau said.

"Or would it only make it a war we thought we could win? Tell me that when Antea falls all the Timzinae will drop their chains, shake the hands that whipped them, and say Don't worry about all the people you killed and the families you shattered. The priests are gone, and we're fine now. Because I believe that they wouldn't."

Isadau's inner eyelid clicked shut, leaving her both watching Cithrin and not. The rage under her surface calm was palpable. A stab of regret took Cithrin under the ribs.

"I'm sorry," she said. "That was too far."

"No, I take your point," Isadau said. "They wouldn't. Nor would I, for that."

"I don't know how you fight against war. Even the words don't fit."

They lapsed into silence for a long moment, two women who had once been voices of the Medean bank, neither of them welcome or safe in the cities she'd called home. The damp of the city air made droplets on the palm-wide panes of window glass. Isadau's expression was angry, then closed, then amused.

"At least you've ended the age of usurpers," she said. "Not, perhaps, the task we'd set ourselves, but not an inconsiderable windfall."

"How did we do that?"

"We took the power of gold and married it to the crown," Isadau said. "Who'll ever rise against King Tracian when as soon as he falls, all the coins in their chests turn into leaves and ink?"

Cithrin waved the comment away as if she were fanning smoke. "All it means is that whoever cuts off his head and takes the throne will have to offer the same guarantees he did. Kings are just as disposable as they ever were."

"But bankers aren't."

Cithrin heard Komme Medean's half-joking voice in her head. Cithrin bel Sarcour. Secret queen of the world


  • "Everything I look for in a fantasy."—George R.R. Martin on The Dragon's Path
  • "Abraham builds on The Dragon's Path to create and sustain a rich, satisfyingly complex epic fantasy."—Publishers Weekly on The King's Blood.
  • "Prepare to be shocked, startled, and entertained."—Locus on The Dragon's Path
  • "It's as if Clint Eastwood went to Narnia...A pleasure for Abraham's legion of fans."—Kirkus on The Dragon's Path
  • "Abraham is fiercely talented, disturbingly human, breathtakingly original and even on his bad days kicks all sorts of literary ass."—Junot Diaz on The Long Price Quartet
  • "This smart, absorbing, fascinating military fantasy, exciting and genuinely suspenseful, will keep readers on their toes."—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) on The Tyrant's Law

On Sale
Mar 8, 2016
Page Count
528 pages

Daniel Abraham

About the Author

Daniel Abraham is the author of the critically-acclaimed Long Price Quartet and The Dagger and the Coinseries. He has been nominated for the Nebula and World Fantasy awards, and won the Hugo award and International Horror Guild award. He also writes as James S. A. Corey (with Ty Franck) and MLN Hanover. He lives in New Mexico.

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