Read by Matt Addis
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BYRNE is a member of the Watch, investigating a series of murders in which the corpse was drained entirely of life.
FRAY‘s expertise with magic is needed to catch the killer, but working with the Watch destroyed his father, years before.
CHOSS is a champion fighter, trying to diffuse a war in the underworld that threatens to turn the streets red with rivers of blood.
KATJA is a spy from a foreign land, attempting to prevent a massacre that will topple two dynasties and destroy the fragile peace in the city for ever.
Watchmen and spies, assassins and criminals will clash on the streets in this magic-fuelled adventure from the author of Battlemage.
Table of Contents
A Preview of A Crown for Cold Silver
A Preview of The Lascar's Dagger
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A large crowd had gathered on the street by the time Byrne arrived at the murder scene.
"Guardian of the Peace, let me through," he said, shoving people aside. "All right, fun's over. Go home."
He kept up the litany of platitudes, trying to get the obstinate crowd to move on even though he knew there was something to see. The people of Perizzi never passed up on a bit of street theatre.
Worried and scared faces surrounded him on all sides. People who'd spilled out of nearby taverns. A large group of fishermen on their way home after a long day at sea. A gaggle of drunk Morrin, their horned heads peeking over the crowd. A clutch of local merchants. A pair of tall Seve traders. A lesser noble flanked by two Drassi bodyguards and even a black-eyed Zecorran. He lurked on the fringe of onlookers, nervously dividing his attention between the crowd and the dead body. A few people glared but so far it had not come to anything more than dirty looks.
Just over a year had passed since the west, united under the Mad King of Zecorria, had surrendered to Seveldrom. Perizzi, the capital of Yerskania, had liberated itself in the final days, but the scars of the war still remained. In the days immediately afterwards, people went through the motions, pretending nothing had changed and that they could just go back to their old lives. Buying and selling, getting on with their jobs, drinking and gambling, loving and fighting. But it was just a sham. A shadow play where everyone knew their part.
No one had been unaffected. No one left without scars of some kind on the outside or within. After weeks and then months without a resurgence in violence the people in Perizzi finally started to relax. They stopped overreacting to small outbursts of hostility. Stopped staring at every stranger with suspicion and gradually a new rhythm started to emerge. People started paying attention to what needed rebuilding and what needed to change. When they realised another conflict wasn't around the corner they finally started to live again.
More than a year on and only now did Byrne think life had started to get back to a semblance of normality on the streets. That also meant a return to a certain volume of crimes being reported, but he'd been expecting that too.
Trade, the life-blood of the city, continued to flow. During the war it had stalled, but now it too had returned to a familiar level. In turn it generated noise, chaos, traffic and crime. The borders were open again and Yerskania traded with people from all nations, even the savage Vorga. But many still blamed Zecorria for letting a mad King take their throne and for dragging everyone into a pointless war. People needed someone to blame for everything that had happened and the Zecorrans drew the shortest straw.
When he reached the front Byrne gave the crowd another cursory glance. His instincts told him the killer had not come back to relive the moment or gloat at the inability of the Guardians to catch him.
Stood beside the body was another Guardian, Tammy Baker, a blonde who towered over everyone on the street. She and one member of the Watch were trying to keep the crowd back, but were having some difficulty as everyone wanted a look at the dead victim. Someone had covered the body with a cloak, but a shrunken claw poked out from underneath.
Byrne sighed. He'd seen two like it before. This wasn't a normal murder. It was something else, something messy and daring this time. The killer hadn't even bothered to try and hide the body this time. A squad of six members of the Watch turned up and they began to force the crowd away from the victim.
"All right, time to go home," said Byrne, facing the crowd. "Get moving. Go on."
The Watch started to chivvy the crowd and a few people began to disperse. Byrne pulled one of the Watch aside and pointed out the nervous Zecorran.
"Find out where he lives and walk him partway there. When you're sure no one is following, come back here."
The majority of onlookers were refusing to leave.
"Sergeant. Encourage them to disperse."
The Watch started turning people around, shoving them and forcing them backwards. Byrne stood with his arms crossed, doing nothing, simply watching the crowd. Eventually the onlookers realised nothing would happen while they lingered. All but the most stubborn took the hint and drifted away. Only when the majority were on their way did he turn back to the body and lift a corner of the cloak. Squatting down beside it Byrne tried to take in every detail and not think that it used to be a person. It was a lot easier to study if he made it into a thing in his head.
As far as dead bodies went, this one looked particularly unpleasant. Judging by the length of the corpse and size of the hands and feet, it had once been a man. Anything more than that was difficult to tell because of its condition. Although it had been lying on the ground for less than an hour, the body looked as if it had been decomposing for decades. All of its skin had been stretched tight over the bones. The eyes resembled two black raisins in cavernous sockets. The tongue was reduced to a shrivelled black lace. The mouth gaped open in a silent scream, but he was willing to bet no one had heard a thing.
Looking over the body Byrne saw no visible wounds or marks on the skin. No blood on the ground and the skull wasn't crushed or mangled in any way.
"Third one in three weeks," said Baker, clenching her jaw. Her fists were criss-crossed with old scars, the legacy of her former profession as an enforcer for one of the city's crime Families. Her unusual height was a gift from her Seve father, and if not for her pale skin, blonde hair and blue eyes, people wouldn't think her local. Byrne was constantly studying people and trying to unravel their stories. Today was no different, except he couldn't question his subject, so he'd have to find answers in a different way.
"Same story as before?" he asked, looking at their location and the surrounding buildings. The body lay in the middle of a fairly busy side street. Three roads connected at a junction less than half a dozen paces away. People regularly used this street as a shortcut down to the docks to visit the cheap taverns and seedier brothels that lined the waterfront. It wasn't exactly out of the way. The killer was becoming bold. Or desperate.
"No one saw or heard the murder," said Baker, shaking her head. "I spoke to a few drinkers dockside. They saw a bright light in the sky. Described it as orange or red. They thought a building had caught fire."
Byrne didn't comment because they all knew what that meant. Magic.
He stared at the body, trying to absorb everything about the scene before all the evidence was taken away. The victim had a silver ring on one finger and the coin purse in his pocket was half full. But it had never been about robbery.
The sound of marching feet intruded on Byrne's thoughts.
"What's he doing here?" asked Baker as the Watch snapped to attention.
"Three in three weeks," said the Khevassar, his shadow falling over Byrne.
Byrne stood up, towering over his superior. Unlike everyone else, the Khevassar's red uniform was edged with silver instead of black and he didn't carry any weapons. The Old Man wasn't much to look at, slightly built with white hair and blue eyes, but he was one of the most intelligent and dangerous men in Perizzi.
For as long as anyone could remember he'd used the honorary title and nothing else. Some Guardians believed him to be a distant heir to the throne who'd given up his position for a life of service. Others had more outlandish ideas, but having studied the man, Byrne knew they were nothing more than stories. There was no mystery. Whoever he'd been before wasn't important. He defined himself by what he did, not who he'd been.
Six more members of the Watch flanked the Khevassar and a rotund surgeon trailed after them, huffing at the Old Man's unforgiving pace.
"Same as the others?" asked the Khevassar.
"Sucked dry. Not a drop of moisture left," said Byrne, gesturing at the corpse and then the streets. "The killer could've come from one of six directions. Easy to disappear down here in the warren."
Centuries ago the city had been a fishing village, then a trading post. Over the years the ramshackle wooden buildings beside the docks had been rebuilt with stone. The village became a town as it spread, first along the mouth of the river, then further inland until it swelled and became a city. The oldest buildings were on the docks and they'd been rebuilt over and over, turning the area into a warren. Down here, no two buildings were alike, with old sat beside new as those in disrepair were torn down and rebuilt bigger and taller. There were many reasons the dealers and gangs frequented this area. You could always find a dark alley or a back door that led elsewhere if the Watch drifted too close.
"None," said Baker.
The Khevassar pursed his lips and gestured for the two Guardians to follow him. They moved a short distance away, giving the surgeon space to inspect the body and record his findings. As per the other bodies, Byrne suspected there would be no clues to the killer's identity, but procedure had to be followed.
"What was the mood of the crowd?" asked the Old Man when he and the Guardians were out of earshot of the others.
"Anxious, scared," said Baker.
"No, but we know it won't last if this continues," she replied.
The Khevassar grunted. "We need to find this killer. Quickly and quietly."
"I know someone who could help with this sort of thing. A specialist," said Byrne.
"No, he's local, but he's not a Guardian or member of the Watch."
The Khevassar shook his head sadly. "Specialist, eh? Is that what we're calling them now?"
Baker shifted, clearly uncomfortable but didn't say anything.
Byrne shrugged. "People are scared of magic, and this sort of thing doesn't help," he said, gesturing at the body.
"How quickly people forget. It was magic that won the war."
"There are many people with dead relatives who would disagree," said Byrne.
"Then their memory is short."
Byrne didn't argue the point. Thousands of warriors had died on the battlefield in Seveldrom, hacked to pieces with sharpened steel or torn apart by devious traps. Magic had played a big part at the end, with the death of the Warlock at the hands of Balfruss, but no one liked to talk about it. Or him. That name had become something worse than a curse. No one dared say it out loud. They were scared he might hear them and come back.
Ever since that day the few remaining Seekers had stopped visiting towns and villages looking for children born with the ability to sense the Source. Those who showed any signs of magical ability were shunned, exiled and in extreme cases murdered. Byrne had heard one story about a girl being drowned in a river by a mob from her village which included her parents. People claimed to be more civilised in the cities, but out in the countryside, where the Watch didn't visit, anything could happen.
The Warlock had brought the world to the brink of destruction and anyone with magical ability was now seen as a threat. No one spoke about the Battlemages who'd died during the war, fighting to protect innocent lives.
Four foot of steel in the gut was deadly, but at least it was something people could understand. A sword was tangible and it had weight. Setting someone on fire just by staring at them wasn't natural. It couldn't be explained with logic.
"Who is this specialist?" asked the Khevassar, his mouth twisting on the last word. "Do I know them?"
The Old Man ran a hand through his thinning hair and sighed. "Can we trust them?"
Byrne hesitated, then said, "It's Fray."
Baker's eyes widened and the Khevassar raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"He's the right man for the job."
"I've no doubt about that, but you'll have to do it officially. Enrol him as a Guardian of the Peace. Make him a novice in training, partnered to you."
"What about passing the entrance requirements and the paperwork?" asked Byrne.
The Khevassar waved it away. "I'll take care of it. That's the least of my worries. If this continues for much longer I'll be summoned to the palace."
"I don't envy you."
"I was about to say the same thing," said the Khevassar.
Thinking of the right person to solve a magic-related murder hadn't been difficult. Now all Byrne had to do was convince Fray to become a Guardian, the very job that had killed his father.
"I'm very sorry about your father," said Katja, getting it out of the way. The Morrin couple were red-eyed and the wife kept wiping at her face with the back of a hand. It seemed as if her tears weren't welcome, or perhaps she didn't want to share them with strangers.
"Thank you… priestess."
The husband harrumphed. "She's not a priestess."
"You're right, I'm not. Katja is fine."
"Thank you for coming so quickly," said the wife, sniffing and trying to hoard her tears.
"Of course, although I was a little surprised by your message," said Katja, choosing her words carefully. "Do you not follow the Blessed Mother?"
A quick glance around the sitting room of their modest house suggested they were devout followers. From the roughly carved statue sat on the mantel above the fireplace to the three icons of the Blessed Mother on the walls.
"We do, but my father came to Yerskania many years ago because his views were different. He's been devoted to the Great Maker for over a hundred years."
"Is that going to be a problem? Are you asking for more money?" said the husband, determined to find fault. Katja couldn't really blame him for being cautious as the services she offered were unusual. Hers was the only business in the city that made arrangements for the deceased from all faiths. For now at least.
"No. It won't be a problem and it doesn't cost more. It's unusual for Morrin to follow the Maker, but not unheard of. I can make the arrangements at a nearby church of the Maker. The local Patriarch will stand watch over your father for three days, unless there's someone else you'd prefer?"
"That will be fine," said the wife. She managed a small smile and her eyes became distant. Looking into the past, no doubt to happier times when her father had been alive.
"Do you do this a lot?" asked the husband. Katja raised an eyebrow and he continued. "Deal with our people?"
"There are many Morrin in Perizzi," said Katja with a shrug. "The cities of Yerskania are open to all, and I'll help anyone who asks for my services."
"And no doubt charge more for foreigners."
"That's enough, Ton," snapped the wife, slamming her hand on the table. The husband withered under her glare and his shoulders slumped.
"I'm sorry. I just…" Ton trailed off and bowed his head. "I don't know how to do this, yes?"
Katja inclined her head, offering a smile. "Once your father-in-law's watch is over, I'll arrange for his ashes to be brought here. The city permits you to scatter them from any of the bridges, or at the docks if you prefer."
"Thank you, I'll see you out," said the wife, leading her to the front door. As Katja stepped into the street the wife spoke again. "I'm sorry for my husband's behaviour."
"We all deal with grief in different ways."
She shook the wife's hand, pulled up the hood of her robe and set off towards her shop. As she walked along the winding streets, Katja studied the faces of those in the crowd. Just over a year ago when she'd arrived in the city, fear and suspicion of strangers had been apparent. Only now was it starting to fade and there was a better mix of people from abroad, including tall Seves and even dark-skinned merchants from the far east.
It had taken months of hard work to maintain a careful balance. The city authorities had done their best to stay visible without being seen as threatening. The number of patrols by the Watch were increased, especially in the popular areas frequented by foreigners, and gradually people had started to feel safe again. There were still areas of the city that no tourist or merchant ventured into, and the Watch only made brief sweeps, but it had always been that way.
As she passed a squad of the Watch, Katja noticed the sharp lines of their uniforms, the pride in their step and the keenness of the officer's gaze as she swept the street for trouble. The Yerskani Queen, Morganse, had brought in a number of new policies as soon as the war ended. Soldiers in the army and members of the Watch now received much better equipment. They also benefited from intensive weapons training in several disciplines and their wages had increased. As expected there had been a surge in the number of applications to join the army and the Watch, but only the best were accepted. And only the most capable and intelligent of those were able to apply to join the Guardians, the elite investigators.
Queen Morganse could not build walls around Perizzi, her capital city, which was renowned for being open to all, but she would not be caught unawares again. The visible changes on the street weren't subtle, but Katja knew there were a number of other less obvious policies being implemented.
As the busiest port in the world, a river of goods, and more importantly information, flowed from the docks throughout the city and beyond. There were now more spies of all nationalities spread out across the city, and the entire west, than ever before. The moment the war ended and the official documents were signed, merchants were keen to get on the road again. It had been the perfect disguise. Katja had been among the first group of agents to arrive in the newly liberated Perizzi with merchant wagons from Seveldrom.
As an agent for Seveldrom, all of Katja's information went directly to Roza, the local head of the network. Last time Seveldrom hadn't done enough to prevent the war. Roza had made it very clear it wouldn't happen again, and that those orders came directly from the top, from Queen Talandra.
This was Katja's first assignment and so far it had been uneventful. Most of her time had been taken up with establishing the business and convincing everyone that she was who she claimed to be.
As far as most people in the city knew, she was Perizzi's first religiously independent director of last rites. It was a position which gave the Seveldrom network a unique insight into any unusual deaths in the city. It also provided her with a good reason to travel anywhere in Perizzi without it looking suspicious.
Her pale skin and black hair marked her as Yerskani, which made it easier for locals to trust her. Only a few knew she'd been born and raised in Seveldrom. Her loyalty was to her Queen and the country of her birth.
As she turned the last corner and the shop came into view, Katja paused to look for observers, as a man had been following her a few nights ago. He always kept his distance and tried to stay out of sight, but she'd heard the scuff of his shoes and once caught a glimpse of his face from her eye corner. It suggested he'd received some training, or perhaps they were just skills learned on the streets. Whether innocent or otherwise it didn't matter, she'd managed to lose him in the warren down at the docks and had not seen him since. Even so it paid to be cautious and patient.
Once satisfied that the shop wasn't being watched, Katja crossed the street and went in through the front door. A small chime rang above her head as she opened and then closed the door. Summoned by the sound, a pale, gaunt man with wispy brown hair dressed in a hooded grey robe drifted out from the back room.
"Greetings," he said with a friendly yet sympathetic smile before he saw it was her. The smile slipped and his normal annoyed expression replaced it. She was sure that Gankle must question his decision on a daily basis about going into business where he had to deal with the living. He seemed much more comfortable with the dead. They didn't speak, or chew, or breathe, all of which annoyed him. "What took you so long?"
"They thought I was going to charge them extra."
"If they were expecting it then maybe you should."
Katja shrugged. "They want us to handle everything. Can you speak to the Patriarch at the Maker's church?"
Gankle's expression turned sour. It would mean leaving the shop and talking to someone other than her. Nevertheless he inclined his head. "I'll take care of it."
Katja followed him into the visitors' room and flopped down in one of the large comfy chairs, hooking a leg over the armrest. Gankle sat down opposite with practised grace, lifting the hem of his robe and brushing out the creases, as if they were at court and it was made from silk and not wool. Katja's bored eye roamed over the different religious symbols hung on the far wall, the shelves lined with sacred texts and books of poetry, the aromatic candles, charms and a hundred other bits of paraphernalia required for her role. The ritual was what really mattered to the bereaved. It gave them a path to follow amid the chaos. A raft to keep their head above water in the storm for which there didn't seem to be any end. Grief seemed to embarrass some people, as if crying and aching for those who were gone wasn't the most natural thing in the world.
"This came for you while you were out," said Gankle, handing her a folded note with a broken seal. "You need to see her immediately."
Katja pretended he hadn't spoken and took her time reading the note because she knew it annoyed him. Years ago Gankle had been an agent for Seveldrom, and although officially retired, he seemed to think his former status allowed him to get involved. His only jobs were to provide Katja with a place to live and to corroborate her position, but he often seemed to forget.
"The note sounds quite urgent. I should see her straight away," said Katja, struggling not to grin at his annoyance. She left Gankle grinding his teeth and went out the front door.
Following her training Katja took a slightly circuitous route, stopping occasionally to look in shop windows, checking her reflection for followers with the pretence of being interested in the goods behind the glass.
Stopping off at a bakery Katja went inside and bought a small fish pie then ate it on the curb outside where a few children lingered. They asked her a few questions about her grey robe and when her answers proved boring the children quickly lost interest. While they talked she scanned the crowd, looking for anyone familiar she'd already seen this morning. One or two people gave her a curious glance but no more than that. Satisfied that she wasn't being followed, Katja wasted no more time.
As she reached the spice shop the midday bell had just started to toll at a nearby church of the Maker. She pushed open the door and a woman with red hair behind the counter looked up, a friendly smile on her face. It didn't waver or change in any way, but Katja saw a slight tightening around her eyes.
"Welcome," said the spice merchant, gesturing at the racks of pungent herbs and spices arranged on the hive-like shelves. A heady scent of a hundred different perfumes raced up Katja's nose, making it twitch before she sneezed three times. She approached the counter and the shopkeeper shook her head slightly, gesturing towards the chairs by the window.
The spice merchant picked up a few items, incense and herbs often used in funeral rites, before going into the back room. Katja knew anyone could walk through the door at any time and she needed a valid reason for being here. The less she had to lie the more she could stretch the truth to make it convenient.
Katja sank into one of the chairs and stared out of the window. The spice merchant emerged a few minutes later with some pastries and a pot of tea. Only when the tea had been poured into two glasses and they had both nibbled at a spiced pastry did they speak.
"Your note said it was urgent," said Katja.
"I've received some distressing news from a reliable source," said Roza, blowing a loose strand of red hair away from her face. With a sigh she unfastened her hair before tying it back again in a tight pony-tail. Katja didn't think it suited her. It made her forehead too proud, but perhaps that was the point. In the right clothing Roza would turn heads, but dressed in an unflattering man's shirt and loose cotton trousers, with her hair scraped back and no make-up, it told a stranger everything they needed to know about her.
She had no time for frippery or decoration and her business came first. Katja knew Roza actually wore a thin layer of powder on her hands and face which paled her ruddy Seve skin, but no one ever got close enough to see it. There were other local girls far prettier, or at least more approachable, that men would pursue. It allowed Roza to be in plain sight and observe a great deal while going mostly unnoticed. Katja wondered if Roza was ever lonely, then realised her mind had been wandering.
Katja cleared her throat. "Can I ask where the news came from?"
Roza pursed her lips briefly before speaking. "It's reliable. It came from the Butcher."
Katja swallowed hard and drank a sip of tea which suddenly tasted bitter. There were many stories about him and all of them extremely brutal. A year ago no one had heard of the Butcher, but now he was well known in the underworld as a ruthless crime boss. No one dared cross him and any attempt to encroach on his territory was met with messy results. Sometimes he settled for chopping off both feet, but if he deemed the insult severe he took their hands as well. The victims were always still alive when people found them, screaming in pain or pleading for death.
When Katja had asked about him all Roza would say was that he was loyal to Queen Talandra. Any questions about his identity were met with a stony silence.
"How worried should I be?"
"Very," said Roza, letting her mask slip for a second to show Katja her level of concern. "There are rumours about a plot to murder Queen Talandra when she comes here on a state visit."
The words hung in the air between them, heavy with dread. Their Queen was still a relatively young woman, and new to the throne, having inherited from her father who was assassinated during the war. Despite that she had achieved much in a year. Ties between Seveldrom and the west were stronger than ever, particularly with Yerskania. Trade had increased to pre-war levels and she had worked hard to maintain peace through some difficult times. She'd negotiated several treaties, provided warriors and aid to Shael, and even reached out to the Morrin to try and help with their troubles.
- "This is epic fantasy for readers who appreciate extra helpings of carnage with their backstabbing."—Publishers Weekly on Battlemage
- "Stephen Aryan puts the epic into Epic Fantasy. This is a ground-shaking debut, full of fiery promise."—DenPatrick, author of The Boy with the Porcelain Blade on Battlemage
"A vivid and rousing adventure with the kind of magic that punches you right in the face."
—JenWilliams, author of The Copper Promise on Battlemage
"Aryan's battle scenes are visceral masterpieces that transport the reader deep into the melee. Read. This. Book."
—TaranMatharu, author of the Summoner series on Battlemage
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- Apr 12, 2016
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