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The Spirit War
By Rachel Aaron
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But he’s a thief who has just seen his bounty topped and he’s not happy about it. The bounty topper, as it turns out, is his best friend, bodyguard, and master swordsman, Josef. Who has been keeping secrets from Eli. Apparently, he’s the only prince of a rather feisty country and his mother (a formidable queen who’s every bit as driven and stubborn as he is) wants him to come home and do his duty, which means throwing over personal ambitions like proving he’s the greatest swordsman who ever lived.
Family drama aside, Eli and Josef have their hands full. The Spirit Court has been usurped by the Council of Thrones and someone calling herself the Immortal Empress is staging a massive invasion. But it’s not just politics — the Immortal Empress has a specific target in mind: Eli Monpress, the greatest thief in the world.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Spirit's End
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Den the Warlord, unknowing owner of the highest bounty the Council of Thrones had ever issued, was bashing his way through a jungle. He ripped out the waxy green plants in wet handfuls, kicking the rotten ground whenever it tried to trip him. Insects whizzed by in the humid air above his head, flying at his eyes whenever they dared, biting and stinging and all the while buzzing, "Go away! Go away!"
Den smacked them out of the air and kept going.
He knew by this point that the jungle was another dead end, but he had nowhere else to go but through it. So through it he went, smashing the undergrowth with mechanical efficiency until he spotted something white through the trees. Den slowed at once, sliding into a stance as he pushed the last of the broad leaves back. There, hanging directly in his path between two large trees, was a hole in the world. The hole was rectangular, an inch taller than himself, which was to say very tall indeed, and easily wide enough for him to walk through. Its edges were smooth and white, and they shone brighter than the noon sun reflected off water, which explained the flash he'd seen earlier. But strangest of all was that the jungle he saw through the opening was not the one he stood in. It was as thick as his jungle, just as green and overgrown, but the wind that drifted through the white-edged hole was hotter than the humid air around him. The soil on the other side was sandier, the trees denser and older. Though he'd been following a ridge in this jungle, the new jungle was flat, the land unremarkable save for a knot of trees directly ahead, their roots tangled around the entrance of what looked to be a small dirt cave.
Den frowned and took a moment to consider. He'd seen such a portal once before, the only time he'd ever managed to corner a League man. His face broke into a grin at the memory. That had been a good fight.
If he hadn't already decided his jungle was a dead end, that thought alone was enough to decide for him. Smiling in anticipation, Den stepped forward, ducking through the portal. When his feet hit the ground on the other side, he took up a defensive position, looking for his opponent. But the new jungle was as empty as the old one had been, its trees tossing in the lonely wind. Feeling cheated, Den turned back only to find that the portal was gone, leaving nothing but a fading white line in the baking air.
Den snarled. It wasn't that he was angry to leave the first jungle. When you were searching blindly as he was, one place was as good as the next. But he didn't like unknowns, and he certainly didn't like having fights taken from him. He closed his eyes and listened, ears straining, just on the off chance the League man was waiting for an opening, but it was no use. If the League had been here, they were long gone. Den was working himself into a foul mood over this when he caught a faint sound on the wind, almost like a sob.
All at once, Den's smile returned. Seemed this jungle wasn't so empty after all.
He turned on his heel until he was facing the dirt cave below the tree roots. It was a wretched thing, a black hole in the mud held together by tree roots. The entrance crumbled a little as Den pushed his way in. The inside of the cave was dim and low, forcing Den to stoop almost double until he'd climbed down to the bed of mud and leaves that served as the cave floor. When he reached the bottom, he straightened as best he could and gazed through the dark at the woman hunched against the cave's far wall. Den's smile split into a toothy grin. Not a League man, true, but a better prize, the one he'd been walking through jungles for almost ten years now in search of.
Despite his noisy entrance, the woman didn't appear to notice Den for several seconds. Finally, she shifted against the mud, glancing at him through slitted eyes.
"Oh," she said, looking away again. "It's you."
Den crossed his arms. "It's me."
The woman didn't answer, and Den, tired of crouching, sat down. Normally, he would have just knocked the roof out, but he'd been looking for her a long time and, much as it irked him, a little tolerance was a small thing compared to the hassle it would take to find her again if she ran, miraculous portals notwithstanding.
When it was clear Den wasn't leaving, the woman pressed her face against the cool dirt as though she could somehow ignore him. It was a futile effort, for the cave was very small and Den was a large, large man.
"What do you want?" she grumbled at last.
"What you promised me," Den said.
The woman laughed, a harsh, joyless bark. "Is your life so dull you'd search all across the Empire to collect a bad debt?"
"You promised me a war," Den answered calmly. "I crossed half the world for that promise. Does it really surprise you that I would cross the other half to hold you to it?"
She glanced sideways at him, her dark eyes sharp and almost as he remembered them. "I suppose it doesn't," she said. "My apologies, Bloody Den, but you'll have to find someone else to stage your fights." She turned away, pulling herself against the wall again. "I have no more care to rule."
"No!" Den's shout rattled the earthen walls. The woman jumped, flinching as Den leaned in, towering over her despite his seated position.
"You promised me," he whispered, low and deadly. "Twenty-six years ago you promised me a war. Twenty-six years I've waited, fought your warriors, and prepared your troops. I've held up my end of the deal tenfold, and you owe me. If you want to lie in the mud and feel sorry for yourself, do it on your own time, but right now you need to finish what you started. You will honor your pledge, or I will test your famous immortality for myself, Nara." The name rolled off his tongue like a curse.
The woman leaped up from the mud and turned to face him, staring him down like he was a cockroach. "You will not speak so informally to me, barbarian."
Den leaned back against the cool mud. "I'll treat you like an empress when you start acting like one."
For a moment, the rage burned in her eyes, and she was nearly herself again. Her authority radiated through her mud-stained rags, dismissing her long, matted hair and wretched surroundings until he could almost see the Empress he remembered, tall and dark and terrible in her rage. But then, between one second and the next, it crumbled, and she sank to the mud floor in a broken heap.
"What does it matter?" she whispered, letting the dirty mass of her dark hair fall over her face. "The Shepherdess has abandoned me. Everything I did, my entire life, it was all for her. I gave her everything—my soul, my love, my service—but she doesn't even look at me anymore. All she cares about is that boy."
The ragged, naked hatred that trembled through her voice when she said the word boy shocked even Den, and he seized his chance. "Of course she doesn't want to look at you," he said. "I can hardly stand to see what you've let yourself become."
The woman hissed and turned on him, lashing out with her fist. Den caught the blow with one hand. "Who could love such a self-pitying, wretched hag?" he said, letting his disgust ring clear through the words. "You were the favorite of creation. The unquestioned ruler of half the world for twelve generations. Now look at you, a rat hiding in a cave, and all because your White Lady found a new pet."
She snarled and the ground began to rumble, but Den held on, pulling her forward until they were eye to eye. "If you want your Shepherdess to love you again, become something worth loving. Even if her boy died tomorrow, she'd never look at you while you're like this. Who would? No one loves a failure, Nara."
Her eyes went wide and she wrenched herself free. Den let her go, watching her with a sneer as she stumbled back to her rut in the mud. She stayed there for a long time, not speaking, not moving. Den matched her silence, waiting to see if his gambit played true. If it didn't, he was in for another long walk. But it seemed he was in luck, for at last she sat up.
"You are a horrible man, Den," she whispered, pushing the filthy hair out of her face. "But you are also a keen one. Fine. My years of begging have earned me nothing. Perhaps it is time to see what action can do. We shall see who is called favorite when I rule all the world. After all…"
She closed her eyes, and the air in the cave rippled like water. Den flinched as her spirit opened over him. It rolled out of her, a roaring wave of power, and everywhere it touched, the world began to change. The cave walls shook like leaves, the spirits crying in obedient awe as they reshaped themselves to please her.
The roof of the cave vanished, replaced by clear, blue sky. The mud Den sat on flattened, drying and hardening and spreading until he sat in the middle of a court pressed with spiraling patterns of impossible beauty. At the edge of the clay circle, the jungle trees lifted their roots and began retangling them into walls of beautifully knotted shapes. Then, as quickly as it had started, the changes stopped, and Den found himself sitting in a beautiful open court as grand as any he'd ever seen. At its center, seated on a raised throne of living wood, was the Immortal Empress. The dirt had fallen from her skin and hair, leaving her radiant, her body almost glowing beneath a sheath of beautifully patterned silk, the ends of which were just finishing weaving themselves from the remnants of her rags. Her glossy black hair was piled on her head, each hair holding itself of its own accord in an impossible arrangement that seemed to float over her ageless face, now as stern and as proud as he remembered it.
"After all," she said again, leaning back on her throne, "I am the Immortal Empress still, a star of the Shepherdess, and I will be victorious."
She held out her hand, and a white line appeared in the air. Den blinked in recognition as it sank silently through the empty space, glowing like the full moon. Through it, Den could see the interior of the throne room at Istalirin, her war palace, and the chaos of the panicking staff as they realized what that glowing line meant.
A wide grin broke over Den's face and he hopped to his feet. "So it was you then," he said. "Suits me. Let's go."
"I have no idea what you're babbling about," the Empress said. "But this is for me. You're walking."
"What?" Den roared.
"You were very disrespectful toward your Empress," she said with a cutting look. "Your punishment is that you must walk back to Istalirin. Your commission will be ready when you arrive."
Den frowned. "And you will honor your promise at last?"
The Empress gave him a cruel smile. "Beyond your wildest dreams, Bloody Den."
And with that, she was gone. The white line shimmered and faded, leaving Den alone in the beautiful court under the sky. He stood a moment, grinding his teeth until he could feel the pain shooting down his neck. Finally, he turned and stomped out. That had been petty, even for her, but he should have expected it. The Empress was a woman, and women were always petty, especially when their pride was bruised. Still, it didn't matter. He'd just spent almost fifteen years walking the breadth and width of her cursed land, what was another few weeks? What mattered was that he'd done it. He'd found her, and better, he'd won. He would have his war.
A great smile broke over Den's scarred face, and he began to walk faster, jumping into the jungle at the clearing's edge. This time the trees parted for him, whispering apologies. Now that he was in the Empress's favor again, the world was bending over to make his life easy. His walk became a run as the forest opened for him, and Den began to laugh. A war at last. Finally, after so long, he would reclaim his paradise.
Still laughing, Den fell into a mile-eating jog, running through the now-genteel forest. He didn't know where he was still, but it didn't matter. The spirits had their mistress again, and they would make sure he got where she wanted him to be. Grinning at the thought, Den picked up his pace, running full out along the path the trees made him, following the setting sun west toward the war palace of the Immortal Empress.
Two Months Later
"Are you sure?" Queen Theresa of Osera leaned forward, frail fingers tightening to white-knuckled claws on the velvet arms of her chair. "Absolutely sure?"
The fisherman looked almost insulted. "I can tell you only what I saw with my own eyes, your queenship," he said, lifting his head to look at her for the first time. "For years now, my crew has sailed the roughest ocean in the world to be your eyes on the Unseen Coast, and I'm telling you the shipyards are active again."
"But why now?" The queen shook, though with fear or rage even she could not tell. "She built like mad for twelve years after the war, and then fifteen years ago, everything stopped. Now you're telling me she's building again? Why? Why ships? Why now?"
The fisherman flinched and gave no answer.
None was expected. The queen had already hauled herself to her feet and was now pacing the length of the small stage at the end of her private-audience chamber, muttering under her breath.
"What changed?" Her whisper was tight and raspy. "Did we show some weakness? Or perhaps I was the fool to think she had given up." Her jeweled heels clicked faster on the glossy wood floor. "How many ships?"
The fisherman jumped. "Too many to count. I took the time to spy on only one of the yards before coming to you. Was I wrong?"
"No," the queen said, shaking her head so sharply that she knocked loose one of the carefully pinned curls of her once famous golden hair, now mostly white. "Without your information we wouldn't have a candle's chance in a storm. Tell me, though, in your hurry, did you see what kind of ships was she building?"
"I did," the fisherman said, licking his chapped lips. "They was palace ships, lady. Every single one."
The queen stopped walking and pressed a bony hand to her forehead. "Lenette?"
A strikingly beautiful woman in an elegant dress of stiff black silk appeared from a side door. "Yes, my queen?"
"Pay him. Double."
Lenette nodded and walked across the room to the strongbox. She took a fist-sized bag from the bound chest and walked to the fisherman, holding it out for him with both hands. He took it with a blush and opened the bag at once, eyes bulging when he saw the pile of gold it contained. But the smile slipped from his face when the queen looked at him with a glare that could have cut iron.
"Spend it quickly."
The captain swallowed loudly, but the queen's attention was already back on her pacing. Lenette took the man's arm and led him back to the doors, gently pushing him into the hall. Thus dismissed, the fisherman bowed several times before the guards shut the doors in his face. The moment they closed, the queen collapsed into her chair with a pained sigh.
"And there's the other shoe," she muttered. "Twenty-six years after her first invasion, the immortal sow finally rousts herself to finish the job."
"The man was a fisherman, my lady," Lenette said gently, walking over to kneel beside the queen's chair. "Not a trained spy. He could have been mistaken."
The queen gave an unladylike snort. "I'm not sending the fleet into the Unseen Sea to check his story. The deep trawlers are the only ones who dare that crossing. Fortunately for us, the same reckless greed that sends them chasing leviathan spawn in the deep current spurs them to take my money to spy for their country. Anyway, without that 'fisherman,' the old harpy would have caught us naked as a cheating lover." She nodded at the closed door. "The captain is Oseran born and old enough to remember the war. If he says they're palace ships, they're palace ships. It's not something you forget."
"But we only know that she's started building again," Lenette countered. "Those ships might not even be for us. She could have a new target."
"Where?" the queen said with an exasperated huff. "The woman rules half the world. There's nowhere left for her to conquer save the Council Kingdoms, and our little island is dead in her way. Her army will roll over us without even a pause. When I think of all—"
A racking cough stopped her midsentence. The queen doubled over, pressing a lace handkerchief to her mouth as her body convulsed. Lenette was with her in an instant, rubbing the queen's back with her small, delicate hands until the attack subsided.
"You shouldn't think about such things, lady," Lenette whispered. "You'll only worsen your condition. Remember, Osera and the Council have pushed the Empress back before."
"Yes," the queen wheezed. "Two and a half decades ago, when I was young." She looked at her blood-streaked handkerchief with disgust. "When I wasn't sick. When I could stand to look at myself in the mirror. Back when I was truly queen."
She raised her gaunt face and gazed across the chamber at the portrait that took up most of the wall. It was enormous, large as life and set in a gilt frame that touched both floor and ceiling. On it, a steel-gray sea pounded the rocky eastern shore of Osera. The stony beach below the cliffs was filled with soldiers raising their swords in salute, or perhaps taunting, for the choppy sea was scattered with the Immortal Empress's warships, some crashing on the reefs, some ablaze, all fleeing defeated back across the Unseen Sea. In the painting's foreground, a young woman dressed in the heavy black armor of the Eisenlowe stood with her feet in the sea. She faced the fleeing ships with her head held high, hair flying behind her like a pale gold banner. Her hand was stretched out toward the ocean, the gloved fingers tangled in the long, black hair of the enemy general's severed head.
Queen Theresa smiled. That was not how it had ended, but it was the way she wanted the war to be remembered—bloody, glorious, an absolute victory. The way it should have been and, she closed her eyes, the way it could never be again.
"Osera has always been ruled by the strong, Lenette," the queen said quietly. "We've grown wealthy and civilized thanks to the Council, but it will take more than these few generations to tear us away from our bloody past. Were we a softer kingdom, more deeply rooted in law and nobility, perhaps I could re-create the miracle I stumbled onto all those years ago. But we are not. The Empress is coming, and an old, sick woman cannot lead Osera to war."
Lenette stiffened, her face, still so lovely despite her advancing years, falling. "Will you abdicate, then? Give the country to your cousin?"
"Finley?" The queen made a disgusted sound. "He'll get his soon enough, much as I hate to think of it. But he's no Eisenlowe. Much as he hated to, father entrusted our line to me after my brothers died. I've spent the last thirty years fighting to stay on my throne. I do not intend to meekly hand it over now."
Lenette shook her head. "But what will you do, lady?"
"Crisis demands stability, Lenette," the queen said grimly. "I'd thought I could give him a little more time, but circumstance has left us little choice. The Throne of Iron Lions must follow the proper succession, whatever the cost." She settled back into her chair with a pained sigh. "Wake up the Council wizard and have him bring me the Relay point. We must warn the Council tonight. I'll need to speak with Whitefall personally, and then I'll need that cousin of his, the one who runs the bounties."
"Phillipe Whitefall?" Lenette said.
The queen waved her hand dismissively. "Whoever. I never could keep all the Whitefalls straight. Just get me the head of the bounty office. Also, get Adela in here. Your daughter is a sensible girl, and she has a larger stake in this business than most."
Lenette pursed her lips. "It's time then, is it?"
"Long past," the queen said, patting her friend's hand. "If the Immortal Empress is on her way, then we have no time left for patience. That boy is out there somewhere, and I don't care if I have to hand over every scrap of gold in Osera, he will come home and do his duty."
Lenette nodded and bent to kiss the queen's hand. "I will bring Adela to you, lady," she said, rising to her feet. "And send someone to fetch the Relay keeper. Meanwhile, I'll have the maid bring up your medicine."
The queen smiled. "Thank you, Lenette. What would I do without you?"
Lenette smiled and stepped off the little stage. She walked to the door, her heels clicking delicately across the polished floor, and vanished into the hall with a curtsy.
When she was gone, Queen Theresa lay back in her padded chair, staring at the picture of what she had been. As her eyes struggled to focus on the familiar brushstrokes, she remembered not the gory glory of the artist's rendition, but the real morning, twenty-six years ago, standing on the windy beach, too large for her armor at nine months' pregnant, weeping in relief at the retreating ships while her guard made a square around her so that no one could say they'd seen the Lioness of Osera cry.
When the maid arrived a few minutes later with the medicine tray, the queen dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief and took the cup that the girl offered, drinking the bitter concoction without so much as a grimace.
The Perod bounty office was packed with the usual riffraff. Dozens of men and a few scowling women lounged on long benches stolen from the tavern across the street, boredly polishing a startling variety of weaponry and trying to look like they weren't waiting. It was a farce, of course. It was criminally early on a Monday morning, and the only reason bounty hunters ever came into a regional office before noon was to get their hands on the weekly bounty update from Zarin.
The only person who didn't try to hide his anticipation was a young man toward the back of the crowd. He stood on his bench, hopping from foot to foot and ignoring his dour-faced companion's constant attempts to pull him back down, an anxious scowl marring the boyish face that everyone should have recognized, but no one did.
"Honestly," Eli huffed when Josef finally managed to drag him down. "Are they walking from Zarin?"
"It's not even eight," Josef said, his voice low and annoyed as he nudged the wrapped Heart of War farther under the bench with his foot. "The post isn't due until eight fifteen. And can you at least pretend to be discreet? I love a good fight, but we walked all night to get here. I'd like some breakfast and a few hours of shut-eye before I have to put down an entire room of bounty hunters, if it's all the same to you."
Eli made a disgusted sound. "Go ahead. I could wear a name tag on my forehead and these idiots still wouldn't notice. No bounty hunter worth his sword goes to a regional office for leads. There's not a soul here who's good enough to see what they don't expect." He slouched on the bench. "Sometimes I think there's no pride in the profession anymore. You were the last of the bounty hunters worth the name, and even you got so bored you took up with the enemy."
"Not bored," Josef said. "I just learned that working with you got me better fights than trying to catch you. Anyway, Coriano was perfectly decent, and what about that man who attacked you at the hotel? Gave you quite a scramble for a dying profession, didn't he?"
Beside him, Nico did her best to stifle a laugh, but her coat gave her away, moving in long, midnight waves as her shoulders shook. Eli rolled his eyes at both of them.
"Well, too bad you killed them, then," he said with a sniff. "Knocking over the best of a dying breed without even leaving a calling card—it's such a waste. No wonder your bounty's only ten thousand."
Josef shrugged. "Unlike some people, I see no need to define myself by an arbitrary number."
Eli bristled. "Arbitrary? I earned every bit of that bounty! You should know; you were there for most of it. My bounty is a reflection of our immense skill. You should take some pride in it. After all," he said, grinning painfully wide, "I'm now the most wanted man in the Council Kingdoms. Two hundred and forty-eight thousand gold standards! That even beats Nico's number. My head is worth more than a kingdom—no, two kingdoms! And to think, just last year I was struggling to break thirty thousand. This is an achievement no one else in the world can touch, my friends. You are sitting beside a national power. Tell you what. When they hand out my new posters, I'll sign them for you. How's that?"
Josef looked decidedly unimpressed and made no comment.
"It is a large number," Nico said when the uncomfortable silence had gone on long enough. "But you're not the highest. There's still Den the Warlord with five hundred thousand."
"Den doesn't count," Eli snapped. "He was the first bounty, made right after the war. The Council hadn't even decided on a valuation for its currency yet. If they'd made the bounty properly with pledges from offended kingdoms rather than just letting old Council Daddy Whitefall pull some grossly large number out of his feathered helmet, Den would never have gotten that high. Anyway, it doesn't matter. I'll be passing him soon enough, just you watch. This time next year I'll be at a million, and see if I offer to autograph your poster then."
"I'll take my chances," Josef grumbled, eyeing the crowd. "Look lively. I think the post is here."
Eli was on his feet in an instant, elbowing his way through the crowd that was no longer even pretending to look bored. The hunters thronged around the door as a sleepy-eyed bounty officer and two harried men in Council uniforms with piles of paper under their arms attempted to push their way in.
"No shoving!" the officer shouted. "Stand back! Individual posters can be purchased after the official notices are hung!"
The crowd took a grudging step back as the Council postmen began tacking up the latest posters under the bounty officer's direction. First they hung up the small-fry, lists of names with tiny descriptions and even tinier numbers beside them. Next came the ranking bounties, criminals with a thousand or more on their heads whose notoriety had earned them a sketch and a small poster of their own. These were all pinned between the floor and waist level. The top of the wall was reserved for the big money. Here, the Council men hung up the famous names.
Izo was gone. The men stripped his old poster down with minimal fanfare, moving those bounties below him up a notch. The old, yellowed poster offering two hundred thousand for the Daughter of the Dead Mountain was left untouched, as was Den's large poster at the top of the board. Between these, however, the men tacked up a fresh, large sheet featuring a familiar face grinning above a rather astonishingly large number.
Eli stopped shoving the men in front of him and gazed up at his poster, his eyes glowing with pride. "It's even more beautiful than I imagined," he whispered. "Two hundred and forty-eight thousand gold standards."
Praise for The Spirit Thief:
"Fans of Scott Lynch's Lies of Locke Lamora (2006) will be thrilled with Eli Monpress." - Booklist (Starred Review)
"A romp of a lighthearted fantasy starring an absolutely darling rogue." --- Publishers Weekly
"Full of humor and suspense, this action-packed fantasy adventure is highly enjoyable." --- SciFiChick.com
"A charming and fast-paced caper with intriguing worldbuilding and interesting characters." --- RT Book Reviews (4 stars)
" This book was a nice surprise and a complete winner for me. Rachel Aaron has written a fun story which can be best described as "Terry Brooks Meets Scott Lynch" in a lighter vein." --- Fantasy Book Critic
- On Sale
- Jun 5, 2012
- Page Count
- 544 pages