Alt Coulumb spiralled out from Kos’s Sanctum with tendrils of steel and granite, with channels of sea water lying flush with the metal and stone. The arrival of water had been a novelty for those who did not remember Seril’s presence. Now, three months after, it was commonplace. There was an everyday miracle now to dream of water and moonlight, much as dreaming of fire and metal had been.
Tara remembered the time when Kos had been killed. She remembered the fear, the mobs, the resolve to not take Kos’s light and heat for granted - yet how quickly the miraculous became mundane!
Seril’s Guardians had not yet appeared to the populace. That was yet to come, when Ms Kevarian returned from the Archipelago. For now, they left poems for their goddess in the stone walls that demarcated the streets. Tara had tried to read them once, from the air, and found them overly sentimental. Of course, that was how they had kept their goddess alive to begin with, as insane as that was.
While her Guardians were not yet in Alt Coulumb on a permanent basis, Seril had made her presence known.
It had not been Tara’s intention to be in-house counsel to two gods. Her intention when deciding to stay in Alt Coulumb was to see Seril’s integration through without the angry horde.
She also needed time. She had done things she wasn’t sure she agreed with. Abelard, when she saw him, seemed little worse for wear for his death and resurrection, and that helped, but she did wish that she had had time to apologize to Cat before she left for destinations unknown.
The work had started small: minor disputes of Craft that barely needed a Craftswoman to resolve. Still, it paid, and with it came more work. Finally, Tara was taking instructions from Kos and Seril themselves. Had she been working with a firm, she would not have had this experience for several years, until she made partner at the least. At this stage of her career, it was heady indeed.
Working for gods wasn’t exactly what she expected, even with her first case with Kos. In Edgemont, the gods were created as unknowable, magnificent beings worthy of adoration and idolation. The people of Alt Coulumb loved their gods, but Tara had swallowed a dying star and made it her own far too young to believe in the unattainable. At the Hidden Schools, gods were dissected into their essential parts: a heart for the loyalty of a religion, hands to bolster alliances beween nations. The head was the most prized of all, because of the secrets and power it contained.
For Tara, Kos and Seril were a source of income, a sentiment she still has to remember not to tell Abelard about. He considered it blasphemous, she considered it honest. She had no loyalty to them other than that which any Craftswoman owed her client, which gave her the cold-eyed pragmatism to tell them hard truths that they did not wish to hear… and to survive the telling.
That went both ways. They could trust her to handle the matters that they could not entrust to their faithful. It did however mean that she was on call at any time, such as now. The glyph on the palm of her left hand pulsed, reminding her of her promise. Tara sighed, put aside her coffee, and attended on her client.
This time it was Kos, a muscular man whom faith of his followers made as immense as mountains and about as moveable. “I wish for the removal of the ward around My city,” he said and his voice was the flickering of flame. “I have told My followers of this, and they have engaged a Craftsman. If you accept the contract, you are to go to him, observe his actions and assist him if needed.”
That was predictable, both Kos’s decree and the Church’s startled engagement of a Craftsman, despite the theological implications. The problem with gods was that they believed that their church was theirs, and not a group of deluded desperate people clinging to divinity for meaning. Kos was better than most, which was how he survived the God Wars, but even after his resurrection he was sometimes caught flat-footed.
“Who did they engage?” Tara said. “And when are they coming?
“Varkath Nebuchadnezzar and Stone,” Kos said.
Tara raised her eyebrows. “Not messing about, are they?”
“No. Vega arrives this afternoon.”
Tara breathed a low whistle at this. The Church really were pulling out all the stops. “You really put fear into them.”
“Do you accept the contract?” Kos said.
“Yes,” Tara said quickly. She was not short of soulstuff at the moment, but that could always change. She was not so established a Craftswoman that she could choose to pass up work. “I’m available to take the work on.”
Kos’s touched her forehead with a fingertip hot like a burning ember, leaving the glowing fingerprint seal behind. Tara had experienced this before. The mark would fade once she has completed her task, and served as a source of power. It also meant that she couldn’t break confidentiality and use information that she learned from working for Kos and Seril against them later on. They too learned from Denovo.
The mark sat uncomfortably for a moment, before mostly fading from Tara’s perception. Past experience showed that she was the only one aware of it.
“Right,” Tara said, returning to the cafe. Her coffee had stayed hot during the conversation with Kos but that meant nothing. She looked at her watch. Less than a minute had passed. “First things first.”
First item on Tara’s agenda was an informal discussion with the counsel for the Church.
Waiting for her on the stone steps that led to the cathedral was a tall, slender man with dark hair, who raised his eyebrows as she arrived. Halcyon Vega y Alastriste of Varkath Nebuchadnezzar and Stone. The firm was the one that Tara had heard about during her time at the Hidden Schools, though her plan to apply to their graduate Craftswoman program was forestalled by her becoming a thrall to Denovo. Vega she knew only by reputation - tenacious, vicious, and adept at using Craft. He’d made partner very young and Varkath Nebuchadnezzar did not make people partners lightly. Being his opponent would be a challenge, but not an impossible one.
Vega was smaller than she expected. More human. His handshake was cool, but not the bone-cold kind that came with decades of immersion in Craft, and his grey-eyed gaze was sharp, lacking the inhuman intensity of Ms. Kevarian’s. His impeccably cut pale grey suit remained untouched by the soot and ash that lingered in the air of Kos’ Cathedral and he looked utterly unruffled from his trip from Shikaw. As first impressions went, it was impressive.
“Ms Abernathy,” Vega said. “It’s a pleasure.”
“You’re acting for the Church?” Tara said, and he nodded.
“Given the circumstances behind the construction of the ward, the Church thought it was necessary.”
Tara conceded the point with a nod. Seril’s death and resurrection made it clear that there was a difference of theology between Kos Everburning and factions of his church. That was not common, not after the God Wars. Gods and their believers were more familiar now withtheir interdependence on one another. Vega’s position was not one that she envied.
“And what instructions do you hold?” she asked.
“The Church agrees that it would be best for all parties that the ward be removed and will undertake to do so,” Vega said. Again, this was not a surprise. The wards did nothing but annoy both Kos and Seril, who were as reasonable as gods went in Tara’s experience, but there was no point in provoking the wrath of gods. It was in a bad taste, and also tended to leave an impression on the landscape.
“Power to be diverted back to Kos?”
“And costs?” Tara said.
“Standard basis only,” Vega said.
“I need to take instructions,” Tara said, and closed her eyes.
Seril was there in the darkness behind her eyelids, and Tara’s mind shaped her into a immense woman wrought from stone and limned by moonlight, with eyes as deep and unfathomable as the ocean, and a countenance of divine distaste. “He insults me,” Seril said. Her voice smashed against Tara like a tidal wave. Tara stared back, her gaze that of someone who drained the seas and left marine gods floundering in her wake.
“Yes,” Tara said. “But it’s an offer you should accept.”
“No.” Her anger was a storm that battered against the steel of Tara’s will. “They stole My city, and now they want to spend My Guardians’ love to remove their insult?”
“The amount of power spent isn’t going to be as much as you think,” Tara pointed out. “They’re the ones doing the heavy lifting. We just watch to see it done.”
“Why should I trust them?”
It was a fair question. Seril had trusted in the faith of Kos’ priesthood and that trust had seen her corpse mutilated into a pet goddess bound by Denovo’s leash. Kos had trusted in the faith of his priesthood and that trust saw him killed. Asking that Seril trust in the ethical code of Theologists and Craftswomen, or at least trust in the fact that they probably won’t actively screw their client over while working for them, was pushing it a bit.
Tara thought over her options for a minute.
“Is the problem that you want to see it done, or that you don’t trust them to do it right?”
There was a moment of silence. Tara repressed a grin. Seril knew that Tara was right. No need to rub it in.
“I want you to do it with them,” Seril said, “and I want them to pay for your work.”
“That’s not going to happen,” Tara said. “Standard costs. The best we’ll get is a portion of my time.”
“About twenty percent? Maybe thirty, if you have a good costs assessor.”
Tara knew that opinion was not going to go over well. It didn’t. The tempest lasted for a moment before it subsided. Seril Green-Eyes didn’t have enough influence yet to present more than a token threat, and she knew it. Death made a god more aware of their limitations, it seemed. Tara filed that in the back of her mind in case she ever had to battle Seril, or indeed any god. Any piece of information was useful, given the power difference. “See it done,” she said, and Tara slipped back from the realm of Craft to that of flesh and blood.
“My client accepts your client’s offer,” she said to Vega. “When will it be done?”
“Tonight,” Vega said. “As a gesture of good faith to the Lady.”
“I’m sure she’ll see it in the spirit it was intended,” Tara said.
Vega’s lips quirked. It was the only sign in his otherwise polished presentation that he appreciated just how precarious the Church and Seril’s relationship was. “I’m sure she will.”
Tara had seen the wards girdling Alt Coulumb when she first arrived to the city. Repeated exposure to them had not endeared them to her. Even from the position of a few hundred metres in the air, the wards strangled the city with a petulant intensity. And they said that Craft never took on the characteristics of its users.
From the air she studied their structure with the eyes of a Craftswoman. Vines wrapped themselves around a lattice, thorns turned towards the gaps in the structure to capture the unwary or the ill-disciplined and tear soulstuff away, and everything burned with the sullen glow of a fire poorly tended. The vines looked impressive, and as Tara probed the nearest gap in the ward the thorns caught at her. It hurt, but pain was merely another sensation. She pushed through. Outside the ward, Kos’s heat was absent and it was pleasantly cool against Tara’s soul. She thought about ripping the ward out of the ground and drinking it dry. It wouldn’t be easy, but the reward would be spectacular. Not quite what Denovo was aspiring to, but not everyone had his level of hubris.
If she were going to do it, she thought as she studied the ward, there were two ways to go about it. The first would be to siphon off Kos’s power that fed the ward into a glyph of her own devising, which then drip-fed power to her at a manageable level. It would take months, but it would slip under the notice of Kos and his priesthood until she was too powerful to challenge. The other, now that she studied the ward properly, would either result in a glorious death as she burned in divine fire, or instant empowerment. Either way she’d be immortal in another way: leaving a great flashpoint crater where she used to stand, her pumps fused into the glassy ground; or becoming the woman who challenged the gods and won.
The odds of success were lower than she would like, and daring the odds to strike you down would only win some of the time. For all that Tara thought she might survive it, her luck had been too fickle to chance it. Still, it was an interesting theoretical exercise.
“Sloppy,” she muttered to herself as she pulled herself back through the ward and settled back into her own physical body. Immortality had its allure, but not yet. It would come soon enough and without betraying a client. She had her professional pride. Also, Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao would extract their own price from her afterward. Immortality was far less pleasant as a shattered wreck with a void where their power once was. It was theorized that that was how a Deathless King could die, and Tara didn’t intend to be the test case.
The pull of power from Kos wasn’t how she would have designed it either. It was efficient, like how Kos’s Church was efficient with its use of energy to reduce loss, but it was clearly designed by someone familiar with Applied Theology. It lacked elegance. Tara’s sneer was more reflexive now than it had been before she left the Hidden Schools: she was, after all, working as in-house counsel. No need to bite the hand that fed her. Besides, the flaws made it easier to tear it down tonight.
Tara had studied the theory of ward construction and destruction at the Hidden Schools. There had been a game in her first year of students duelling with them, though Tara had had little interest in it at the time. The Schools were overwhelming enough, without seeking additional thrills from other students. More recent were her experiences with Denovo. It wasn’t identical, but it helped. She recited the rules to herself as she continued her walk, intermittently testing for unexpected weaknesses to exploit.
The almanack for the city advised that it would stay a clear night. That was promising. Tara had soaked herself in starlight yesterday, but she had wanted to keep that power for the moment. Vega, having travelled just recently, wouldn’t have enough to spare to lift the ward without calling on his firm, which would be costly. Initially for Varkath Nebuchadnezzar and Stone, but ultimately for Tara’s clients.
Landing, she brushed off her dark pants and smiled at the startled onlookers who came to see a woman fly around their city. Alt Coulumb was a city of the gods, not of Craft, and flight was not a miracle that Seril or Kos granted. Their loss.
Her expedition had taken longer than she had anticipated. Vega had already arrived, still unmarked by the heat that characterised Alt Coulumb during the day. She wasn’t sure if that was due to Craft or that he had an office nearby. It was probably the latter. He needed all the power he had for tonight’s work.
“Ms. Abernathy,” Vega said by way of greeting. “You’ve inspected the ward?”
“Still there,” Tara said, aiming for laconic.
“I would hope so, or we would have nothing to do,” Vega said. It wasn’t quite dry humour, but it would do. “Let’s begin.”
To Tara’s eyes, the power captured inside the fragile flesh of Vega’s body leaked through fissures that yawed open to show abyssal depths as she watched. It was the first time since Ms Kevarian left for the Archipelago that she had seen a Craftsman, a true Craftsman and not the dabblers that lived here in the shadow of their twin-powered gods, and she hungered for it. Not for Vega, per se, who was attractive enough but in the same way a well-crafted knife was attractive. It was what lay beneath the flesh that Tara wanted.
Vega was what she should be aspiring to. Not wasting time attending to the nervous fretting of gods. For all that her time in Alt Coulumb was teaching her patience and the ability to calculate cost assessments on the fly, Tara hadn’t gone to the Hidden Schools to learn how to balance the books.
“I noticed you never applied to our firm,” Vega said.
“My graduation from the Hidden Schools was… unorthodox,” Tara said.
“This is true,” Vega said. “It’s unfortunate. Our graduate program is lucrative. It’s not uncommon to have your student loans paid off within a few years.”
“If you’re an associate,” Tara said. She was fairly sure she understood what Vega was implying. It wasn’t unheard of for young lawyers to be employed as associates very early in their careers. Unusual, and Ashleigh Wakefield’s recruitment had been the gossip of the Hidden Schools at the time, but not unheard of. For the work she had done with Kos, it was a position she might have earned. Maybe once this is over she’ll brush up on her resume. For now, to work.
The ward itself looked like it had before. Tara expected Vega to do what she had thought of and rip the ward up by the roots. He didn’t. First, he sketched a glyph out of stars. Then, with a knife of ice, he cut the vines closest to the ground. He tied the loose ends to the glyph, then cut again. The ward tried to repair itself and instead powered the glyph. Tara pulled her own knife, empowered with Seril’s ice, and followed Vega’s example.
Cutting the lattice of Craft wasn’t as easy as Vega made it look. The first time Tara tried, the blade almost skittered off, and didn’t only by pure force of Tara’s will. She wouldn’t make such a careless mistake in front of another Craftsman, especially one from a rival firm. She pressed down harder with the blade, letting it drink off enough power from the ward before cutting through. The loose ends shocked her as she caught them, the thorns tearing at her while the power almost disrupted her concentration. Almost. She forced them into the glyph, then turned her attention to the next cut.
Vega’s steady pace didn’t flag, his movements not showing the passage of time or the effort that would have gone into them. Then he stopped. He waited.
“It shouldn’t be long now,” he said.
Tara looked at what they had done. The ward was a guttering candle, needing nothing more than a gentle breeze to extinguish it. The glyph was a contained firestorm of power that Tara itched to claim as her own. It grew in potency as the ward flickered, then with a flash of light the ward collapsed. The glyph’s containment held.
She pulled on her human body once more. Her shirt was pressed against the slick skin of her back, her legs trembled, her breath caught in her chest. She took some satisfaction that Vega looked equally worn.
“Good work,” she said, scraping sweaty hair from her face. “I’ll take possession of your glyph now.” She reached out a hand.
“Of course,” Vega said, and transferred it to her. For a moment she thought about keeping it and damn the firm and the gods. She passed it to Kos’s hands of flame instead, and he cradled it for a moment before giving it to Seril. A love token. How sweet.
Tara took the opportunity to return the power she had borrowed to Seril, minus the portion for her own time, and Kos removed the mark from her forehead. She resented that mark all the more now that she knew what it was that she had been searching for in Alt Coulumb.
Vega apparently took the time to fix his tie while she was communicating with her clients, with the knot neatly in place once more. His lips quirked into something closely approximating a smile. “Do you know somewhere we can get a drink?”
Tara did know of a good place to get a drink. The Honest Craftsman squatted just outside of the court precinct like an alcoholic obese toad, and from the outside appeared about as appealing. The stone masonry of one era sat uncomfortably with the use of bone from another, and the angles of the walls belonged in an architect’s nightmares. The interior was not an improvement. It did, however, have one thing in its favour: an extensive list of drinks. Tara had spent several pleasurable weeks — and several unpleasurable mornings after — exploring the list.
“This is it?” Vega said, clearly hoping that it was a well-played joke. His eyebrows raised. “It’s very … avant-garde.”
“Looks can be deceiving,” Tara said. “It’s really just ugly. But the drinks are good.”
“I would hope so,” Vega said, looking around the inside of the bar with barely concealed concern. You really can’t take the Old World out of the man, it seemed. Tara resisted the urge to roll her eyes in exasperation. “What will you have?”
“Gin and tonic, thanks.”
Tara made her way across the tacky floor and sat down at the bar on a stool that looked to have been made by a drunk apprentice — and might well have been — and waited for Vega to join her. Ordinarily she would pay for her own drinks, but if Vega was willing to cover them she was not so proud to pass it up.
“That was good work with the Kos case,” Vega said after their drinks arrived; his a blue fizzing concoction that Tara knew from experience would scald the skin of the tongue of the unwary drinker, and Tara’s more sedate gin and tonic. She didn’t want to start the night off too strong. It wouldn’t make a good look.
“Thanks,” Tara said. She still had mixed feelings about the case. Not about the outcome: that was beyond her retainer, and Kos and Seril had ended up with a bargain, given that the instructions weren’t as fulsome as they should have been. It was the interlocutory steps that bothered her.
“Stealing a witness’s face isn’t Elayne’s style,” Vega said. “Yours, I take it?”
“Yes,” Tara said, not quite stopping herself from raising her eyebrows. “You know Ms Kevarian?”
“Not personally, but she has a reputation,” Vega said, and did not clarify what that reputation was. Tara didn’t think she needed him to spell it out. Ms Kevarian was as unmovable and pitiless as stone, and about as cold. It was what most Craftsmen and Craftswomen aspired to be. “She’s a good Craftswoman,” Vega continued. “She might make Judge one day.”
Tara recalled the Judge of the Third Circle of Craft and tried to imagine Ms Kevarian willingly allowing her will to be subsumed by that of the administration of justice and becoming a puppet. It wasn’t an easy image to hold, and harder to keep a straight face for.
“Maybe,” she said blandly.
“Partnership pays better,” Tara said.
“True,” Vega conceded with a nod. “How are you enjoying practice, Ms Abernathy?”
“It’s varied,” Tara said. “More costs assessments than I expected.”
“Everyone finds that,” Vega said.
The night continued on. Vega asked more questions about Tara’s experience and aspirations. Tara switched to water as she realised Vega’s intentions. She had misread the situation, it seemed. Rather than encouraging her to apply for an associate’s position, one was open right now. It was flattering, though she wished he had told her before she’d started drinking. He must have an iron liver, to be conducting an interview sober.
“Is this a job interview?” she said.
“Not intentionally,” Vega said. “But have you signed a contract with Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao?”
“Not yet,” Tara said.
“Would you entertain other offers?”
“Do you have one to make?”
“Not in writing,” Vega said. “But there could be one. Varkath Nebuchadnezzar and Stone appreciates talent when it sees it.”
“I’ll consider one if it comes my way,” Tara said.
Flush with the success of a working done well, Tara sat at a small Iskari cafe, eating her breakfast muffin and considering her choices. Or at least most of them — she was not going to consider whether she should have had those last few drinks with Vega. It wasn’t every day you tore an armor of Craft away from a city, even if you had to return the power to the patron gods of the city and not take it for yourself, and it was traditional to celebrate afterward. Even if Vega hadn’t been inclined to join her, Tara would have gone out on her own. It had been a good working, and the most fun Tara had had in months.
That was telling.
No one had told her when she was at the Hidden Schools that three months out she’d spend more time conducting costs assessments than she would performing Craft. It was disheartening. Now that she had done something more interesting, Tara knew that being here was not where she was meant to be. She could make a living with it, of course. But she could have made a living doing routine Craft in Edgemont too, and she would have hated it too. The role would have chafed her raw.
She was meant to be in the cut and thrust of private practice, where the stakes were higher and the successes far sweeter. At the very least, there would be a lot more tricky Craft to work with. The Craftsmen and Craftswomen in Alt Coulumb were nice. Perfectly agreeable. But they had settled for something less than where Tara’s ambitions led her.
She didn’t regret her time in Alt Coulumb though. It gave her time to consider her practice so far. Three months had given her perspective. When she had taken her sabbatical, she’d been conflicted by her choices. She’d made all of her choices to further Kos’s resurrection, and they were not unethical... They were, however, amoral.
It had taken her some time to come to terms with the distinction. Now, with the benefit of time, she could say that her decision to take Shale’s face was the right one. The decision to deceive the Blacksuits was the right one. The decision to manipulate the mind of Catherine Elle was one she’d still do, but next time she would be more subtle about it. All the clues had been there that Elle would run off to Raz, and Tara just hadn’t picked up on them.
However. With time came understanding. Maturity. Tara knew how she would do things differently in future, but she would not make her overall choices differently. It was not her role to decide whether a choice was moral or not when pursuing her client’s case. It was her role to pursue her client’s case within the scope of ethics. And Tara’s conduct was not unethical.
That was not to say that she would write home and tell her parents about it. There were some things non-Craftsmen would never understand, and the idea of ethics over morality was one.
The other thing they would not understand was the idea of looking at a god and deciding no, you are not for me. Edgemont was many things, but disinterested in the edicts of gods was not one of them. Tara, on the other hand, felt like she was cutting off six inches of hair when she used the candle flame on the table to advise Kos that she would not longer be available for his or Seril’s legal needs, but that Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao would be on hand if they needed legal assistance in the near future. He took it so well that perhaps her professional boredom had been more obvious than she thought. That was a little embarrassing, and something to work on in the future.
That done, she turned to her current corporate considerations with a thrill of nervous excitement.
Being an associate less than a year out of school was beyond her wildest dreams. She expected to be paying off her student debt for decades – not that decades mattered when you were aspiring to immortality – and gradually clawing her way up the managerial greased pole. The offer wasn’t to hand yet, but she was confident that if she indicated that she was interested, one would be prepared.
Still, she owed something to Ms Kevarian. It wasn’t Varkath Nebuchadnezzar and Stone who pulled her one step ahead of the mob and who showed her how to keep ahead of the self-same mob. She doubted that she would be an associate, not when she only recently came off probation, but Ms Kevarian was a known quantity. She may be as unmoveable as stone, but she was as supportive as bedrock. That was an important thing to have for someone with Tara’s chequered past, even with an exemplary case to her name.
Besides, Ms Kevarian’s offer existed. Vega’s offer, for all its allure, was a mere promise of one. If he was serious, he could always find her and offer her better conditions, this time with a confirmed offer.
Her mind made up, Tara now had to decide how to tell Ms Kevarian her plans.
Alt Coulumb’s progress into the modern era was a slow one, with Concerns still reluctant to make contracts with the newly resurrected partnership of Kos and Seril. There were advantages to that, too: the Craftsmen and Craftswomen who reside in the city were generous to each other, and Tara was never without drinking partners when she finished her work early. She was, however, without a convenient means of contacting the Archipelago. While Tara had other methods to contact Ms Kevarian, they were more time intensive, both in the initial preparation and clean up afterward. It would be bad manners to leave the cooling remains of an eviscerated rat for the cleaning staff. But she could always turn back to the basics: ink in shades both visible and invisible to the ordinary eye, rope soaked in starlight, grave dirt, sacrificial animals.
Tara sent her message with the soul of the dying bird she had selected for swiftness of flight, and waited.
The reply came on the wings of a nightmare the next evening. Your transportation arrives in the morning, a seven limbed monster with the tusks of an elephant and the eyes of a bee whispered into Tara’s mind as she waited to eat at a table suspended over the quivering belly of a beast long extinct except in the dreams of the worshippers of its master. Be ready.
“I accept,” she said. She smiled and waited for the first course to arrive.