Narova the Skagit: Chapter Nine
Black Hand Ledger Entry — October 31 of the 13th Year After Old Empire
Failed to complete the Lullaby on the womanizer and drunk Ramsay Hoff. Mortimer lost him in the southern wilds.
Failed to complete the Lullaby on the hedge knight Pontius Ilut. Lizard was bested in combat and hobbled home on a shattered foot.
A string of bad luck. Hopefully it doesn’t get any longer. Still no sign of Narova returning from Olagathi.
Chapter Nine: Steam Baths
There was a second entrance to the Holdfast that followed an underground river through a tunnel large enough for horses. It was the most obvious or our entrances, so it was also the most heavily booby-trapped. I guided the five beasts around pitfalls, bear traps, and dart triggers, then I hobbled them at our makeshift stable. I’d eaten the mule on the road. He was stubborn and I’d gotten hungry.
Puck came up from behind and whistled approval. “You’re late,” he said. “But seems like you kept busy. That’s quite the stash.”
Puck was a Touched Sleeper, but his spell was as generic as they come—a fiery Wrath number. He was proud of it, but I highly doubted he could destroy a tavern wall with it. But he wasn’t wrong about my loot. Three full suits of armor, swords that had been forged by a good blacksmith, and four more horses than I’d ridden out with. The horses alone were worth a thousand gold pieces, easy. The armor another five hundred. Davad Thorn’s life wasn’t worth even half that, in my opinion.
And Blink was priceless.
I wondered how much gold Mordred the Unseen was paid to wipe out an entire Oesterle line. Ten thousand gold? Twenty? More that that, even? There are probably only one or two people in the world that could have done that job. Even Vexen Green might not have managed it.
“The pale mare is mine,” I said to Puck. “Tell Falen he can sell the rest.” The knights had decent mounts—a good roan and an energetic stallion—but Crescent and I had a bond.
“Tell him yourself, he’s just in the storeroom working on those bloody ledgers.”
“I need to go see Vexen.”
“Who says he needs to see you?”
I turned around and glared at Puck. He was senior to me by a long way—been with the Hand for almost a decade, and he had his precious Wrath spell. I forgot that he didn’t know about mine yet. I’d been traversing the wilderness fashioning myself a full-blooded Touched Black Hand for weeks. He would find out very soon, and then he would change his attitude.
“I do, Puck. I say he needs to fucking see me.”
Vexen was back in the garden again, smoking his opium pipe.
“Narova,” he said, looking up at me from the mossy spot where he was sitting cross legged. “You’re back.”
Words wouldn’t serve here. The only way to prove you had a spell was to cast it. I focused my thoughts on a boulder behind Vexen, grabbed by thread, closed my eyes, said the words. Blinked.
I opened them again and was staring at Vexen’s back.
He twisted around to look at me. I wasn’t sure how he’d known exactly where I was. He wasn’t smiling, and he didn’t look happy, exactly. But he looked different than his usual placid self.
“Come with me,” he said.
He took me down the index finger of the Glove. I’d never been in there before, it was Touched territory. We passed six or seven large polished doors that I imagined lead to fancy, comfortable rooms full of books and talking plants or something. But I didn’t get a chance to explore them. Vexen turned a corner and took me down a dark, winding stairwell and then another tunnel. After a dozen winding passageways that had a bunch of little storerooms carved out of the sides of them, we reached an open room with a high ceiling and a floor that was covered by straw mats. It was two hundred strides across in both directions, and there were braziers glowing with the weirdly regulated flicker of magic. Someone’s Vision spell, maybe?
“What is this place?” I asked.
“The Touched training room.” Vexen moved to the middle and removed the black outer-robe he always wore. Underneath, he was wearing a sleeveless white tunic. I had never seen his arms before—they were wiry and pale and covered in tattoos. Strange black bars and circles that looked like the pattern light draws on the bottom of a shallow creek.
It’s a strange feeling, getting so many of the things you wanted all at once. Makes you want to search the shadows for an asshole playing a cruel joke on you.
“Cast that spell again. Have you named it yet?”
“Good. Blink yourself to my right.” He gestured with an outstretched hand.
I Blinked. Smiled at him. He took a deep breath and I could tell that he was smelling the foresty-scent of my magic,
“How do you feel?”
“Sprint back to the place you started and do it again, then. This time on my left side.”
I obeyed. Vexen Green had never shown the slightest interest in my training before—that had been left to Falen. I felt like a whipped child, eager to bend over backwards and please a teacher. But I didn’t care.
When I’d conjured myself on Vexen’s left side, he kicked me in the stomach hard enough to send me tumbling backwards on my ass.
“How do feel now?” he asked.
I sucked in air and held back a bunch of vomit. “Apart from the kick? Fine.” I didn’t mention I was still getting over a cracked chest. Didn’t think he’d care.
“Good. Run a little further away and do it again. And don’t let me kick you this time.”
I obeyed. This time, when Vexen’s foot came shooting towards my chest, I slid to the right. He came at me with a sweeping roundhouse kick that would have struck my temple, but I blocked it with my forearm, wincing at the force.
“How do you feel now?”
My mouth was dry as a fucking desert all the sudden, and my head was throbbing. “A little…um. Shitty.” It was like being hit with a hangover from nowhere.
Vexen nodded. “Again. From further.”
We repeated the same sequence six more times. Every time, Vexen asked me how I was feeling. The hangover got worse each time I Blinked. On the last cast, my vision got all fucked up and Vexen’s kicked me in my solar plexus.
“And now?” Vexen asked, not offering to help me up.
“Fucking cunt,” I hissed. “Everything got bendy on me.”
“We stop.” He paused, thinking for a moment. “Ten casts, including the one in the garden. That’s the limit of your Spirit. After that, you start pulling the strength from your body.”
“What would happen if I cast another Blink?”
“You’d probably die.”
It kind of felt like I was moving that direction already. My heart was still thundering and it felt like I’d drunk a cask of wine by myself the night before. It was the worst hangover I’d ever had and I hadn’t had a sip of spirits.
“How many casts can you make?”
“It’s different for me.”
He didn’t explain any further, and I decided not to ask. Enough secrets revealed were one day.
“I can help you strengthen your Spirit down here, but it will require time and pain. A lot of pain. Find Rynoa and tell her you’ve emptied your Spirit. She’ll take you to the bathhouse and help you. Do you have the spell book?”
“Yes.” Despite accidental teleportations into lakes and kidnappings by knights, Glowery’s book had spent the entire journey strapped safely to the Alabaster’s side.
“She can translate it for you, too.”
I got up to leave, too sore to get excited about finally seeing the Touched bathhouse. The soft mat felt like walking on shards of glass, my soles were so sensitive.
“Narova,” Vexen said to my back. I turned around. “This spell will make you the stuff of nightmares. You should start accepting that now, so you don’t get surprised later.”
I straightened up and I looked into Vexen Green’s haunting eyes. I’d never heard him say anything like that before.
Rynoa was in the Touched Food Hall, eating a fresh peach dipped in goat’s milk with a silver fork and knife. The Hall—third door on the left inside the Touched Quarters—was twice the size of the entire Untouched Barrack. I was getting the sense the Holdfast was a lot bigger than I’d realized. There were large tables made from polished oak, silk napkins, and dozens of brandy bottles, any of which probably cost as much as a decent horse.
“Fuck,” I said, taking a seat across from Rynoa and looking around. I didn’t expect it to be this fancy. This must be where all the gold we earned turned up. She put down her knife and fork, swallowed her last bite of peach.
“You stink like magic, Narova.”
Looking at the food up close almost made me puke. Peaches were expensive and rare and delicious but I couldn’t have eaten one in that moment for a hundred gold pieces.
“Vexen sent me down here,” I said. “I’ve emptied my Spirit or something. He said you’d help me.” I also lifted my spell book onto the table but didn’t say anything about it.
“Obviously,” she said. “You look like shit.”
Rynoa was a half-breed Skagit. She had raven black hair just like me, but the other half of her bloodline was Akasura—some obscure island off the coast of Ogramarsh. That’s where she got her bone-white skin, green eyes, and calculating temperament. When she had to actually take a life, she did it with a twin pair of daggers named Beginning and End. They were made from black steel and had orca bone handles, perfect for finding gaps in a knight’s armor. Thing was, Rynoa almost never killed people anymore. Her magical communication with animals made her far more valuable as a scout for other Sleepers and a sentry in the Holdfast. She had an entire murder of trained ravens at her disposal that flew all over Terranum, finding the people we needed to kill.
“Can you help me or what?” I said. Vulnerability is not a color I like to wear.
“Of course I can. I’m not even going to make you grovel like Puck or the other Touched assholes probably would. But you’re going to drop the cunt attitude you always carry around me right now.”
Even if Rynoa hadn’t been part of the Touched crew, I had always kept a wide birth around her because she was half-Skagit, and even half-breeds remind me of my homeland in a way that tightens my chest and puts me in a violent mood. I guess I’d been a little rude in the handful of direct interactions we’d had in the past, and she’d noticed. Being honest, I was pissed she was the one who’d shepherd me through the new parts of being spellbound. But I clearly didn’t have a choice.
“Consider it dropped,” I said with a tight mouth.
“Good. Follow me.”
She led me down a spiral staircase hidden behind a big tapestry in the back of the Food Hall. The stairs were cut directly out of the stone, but they were so small I had to twist my feet sideways to avoid tumbling down them. I guess Gonarviens had small feet. At the bottom, there was a short passageway and then a circular steel door twice my height.
“The fuck is this thing?”
“Used to be a Gonarvien vault,” Rynoa said, moving towards the door. “Probably where they stored all the gems and iron they were taking out of this place. We found a better use for it.” She grabbed a chest-sized lock in the middle of the door and spun it a few times in different directions. There were labored sounds of metal moving inside the door, and then it opened.
The room had smooth tiled walls in the shape of a dome. The floor had been broken and nocked out so there were three fat steam pipes showing. There was a small tub made from dark metal in the center of the room—one of the steam pipes ran directly underneath it. The other two snaked beneath a larger tub made from cedar wood that could probably fit five or six people in it. I pictured the Touched all down here at the same time, naked and laughing, playing with their spells.
“Take off your clothes and get in the small bath,” Rynoa said. She moved the far side of the room and spun a small wheel attached to the steam pipe. Hissing filled the room. “These connect to the big hearth in the Untouched Barracks,” she explained. I guess the warmth of our quarters wasn’t just generosity from the Touched. They wanted hot baths on demand.
I hadn’t bathed or undressed in almost a week. Taking off my boots felt like having an orgasm through my feet.
Rynoa glanced at me after I’d undressed and then glanced again. She had never seen my back before, which is wreathed in so many scars that it looks someone drew a map of a lunatic city into my flesh with a knife. It tends to surprise people.
“Hunting accident,” I said when I saw her staring. I rotate through a lot of different explanations. Falen is the only person in the Black Hand who knows how it actually happened.
“Whatever you say.” Rynoa went over to a black trunk on the far side of the room that turned out to be filled with water when she opened it. She removed a dripping sack made from cheesecloth. She didn’t explain what it was and I didn’t ask. Within a few minutes, the surface of the small tub was steaming and bubbling. She tested the water with the tips of her fingers. “Ok, you can get in now.” I had to inch my way into the water because it was so hot. The outside was made from rough metal but the inside was smooth to the point of being slippery, like the inside of an oyster’s shell.
“I’m going drop this is the water and it’s going to bubble up like a bitch. It’ll feel strange, but try not to panic.”
“You’ve done this before, then.”
“Of course. You ready?”
She dropped the satchel in the water and, as promised, it bubbled up like a bitch. I smelled briny ocean salt and then I felt something like a thousand mouths nipping at my skin.
“What the fuck?” I hissed, standing up and giving Rynoa a close-up view of my tits.
“I told you not to panic,” she said, smiling at me. “Sit back down and let the little buggers work.”
“What are they?”
“They’re Koka Fish. And they cost two hundred gold pieces a bushel so sit the fuck down and let them sort you out.”
It took a little while to get used to the Kokas, and I was a little afraid one of them would swim up my cunt, but they did make me feel better. It was like a long, cool drink of water for my entire body. They nipped away at me, but each bite seemed to give me little energy and vigor instead of taking anything away.
“How does it work?” I asked.
“The Koka are the only creatures on Terranum to be born with a spell. It’s a stupid one, but it’s theirs. They can make seaweed dance around them, which they use as some weird ritual to fuck each other. But the spell means they have Spirit in their bones. In their teeth. When they bite you, they give some of it back.”
“How the fuck did anyone ever figure that out?” I asked.
“Magic’s been around a long time.”
“Fair enough,” I said, shifting a little so one of the errant Kokas would be steered away from my upper thigh.
“You’re one of us now, Narova. Not just some hired blade who slays the minnows the rest of us don’t have time or patience to deal with. Ease into all of this, though. How many casts do you have?”
“Never go past that. It’ll kill you.”
“So Vexen tells me.”
Rynoa smiled. “What’s your spell?”
“I call it Blink.”
“What’s it do?”
“A bit more than close my eyelids and open them again.” I wasn’t in any big rush to let people know what I could do. Even here, surrounded by my Sleeper allies, there was value in preserving a mystery.
“You’re forgetting about the spell book,” she said. “If you want me to read it for you, I’ll know more about that bit of magic than you do.”
“How’d you learn to read Gonarvian, anyway?” I asked, closing my eyes and trying to relax. I was getting used to the bites and I was starting to feel better.
“As a child, I trained to be a priestess in Akasura. They teach you all the languages.”
“Half breeds don’t have a lot of options in Akasura,” she explained. “It’s either the temples or the brothels. And I don’t like fucking strangers.”
“How’d you wind up here, then?” Priests and Sleepers are about as similar as panthers and rabbits.
“Things changed once I bound to my spell. The word of the gods doesn’t sway you much once you can hear the words of every creature on earth. Every voice. Every cry.” She shrugged. “Killing humans for money didn’t seem like such a bad way to pass the time all the sudden. Predators don’t suffer from theological quandaries.”
That made more sense than I cared to admit.
“If you’d read my spell book, I’d be grateful. I’m grateful already.”
She smiled at me. “Stay in the bath until the Kokas stop nipping. Then go drink a flask a water, a flask of rice wine, and sleep for half a day. When you wake up, you’ll have ten more casts at your fingertips, and I will give you all the dirty details on your Blink.”
“How long would it take to recover without the Kokas?”
“A few days at least. Weeks for some people. Weakling lords who buy their spells and never improve their Spirit can take months to recover. Pussies.”
I laughed. I was starting to like Rynoa.
Next day, I found Rynoa in the Food Hall again. It was a bowl of cherries and a blood orange swimming in goat’s milk this time.
“You eat a lot of fruit,” I said.
I sat down across from her. My spell book was next to Rynoa, positioned as if it was a meal and someone need only sit down and start slicing bites off. There was a fresh flask of rice wine between us. I took a long drink straight from the flask and then poured myself a cup.
“How do you feel?”
“Better,” I said. After leaving the bath, I’d planned on going back to the Untouched Barracks to sleep, but hadn’t made it. One of the doors branching off the Touched hallway was open as I passed, the room filled with cushions and a low-burning fire. Walking the rest of the way to a familiar bed just didn’t seem possible in that moment, and I had dropped onto the pillows like a cat and entered a long, dreamless sleep.
Rynoa nodded. “How good are your eyes?”
“What do you mean?”
“On a clear day in an open field, how far can you see?”
“I see…fine. I see everything until it’s too small to make out.”
“Nothing goes blurry after a certain distance?”
“Good,” she said simply. “Wrath spells are governed by the hands and arms, usually. Deceit is all in the stomach. Rejuvenation is usually seated in the lungs and throat. Vision is all in the head. Your spell is governed by your eyes. ”
“So it’s a Vision spell?”
She shook her head. “Definitely not. Your spell is like mine—an outcast roaming beyond the rules and laws of magic. But one way or another, you need your eyes to cast it. That’s very clear. If you ever get blinded I’m not sure you’ll be able to cast it anymore. If you can’t see a place, you can’t move yourself there.”
“What would happen if I tried? Or thought of a place I’d seen before?” That would be a fantastic way to kill people.
“Not a good idea. When the Gonarviens wrote these books, magic was much easier to come by. Spells didn’t just bind to a single person—whole scores of ancient wizards shared the magic. So they got to experiment and test. There is an account of someone trying to use this to transport himself through an oak door and into a locked room. He made it through to the other side, but his body was riddled with wooden splinters and part of the lock got stuck in his bladder. He died in considerable pain.”
“Ok.” Cross doors off the list.
Rynoa ate another cherry. She seemed like she was giving me time to process all of this.
“What’s it like, having a spell outside the normal classes?”
Rynoa shrugged. “It freaks people out but in my experience it’s not a big deal. My theory is that there used to be dozens of classes. Maybe hundreds. It’s just that most of them got destroyed or lost in whatever calamity fucked over the Gonarviens. Poor bastards.”
I polished off the rest of the rice wine.
“Anything else I should know?”
Rynoa sucked a bit of fruit out of her teeth and put her silverware down. Looked at me. “It’s a powerful spell. I expect you are already imagining how many new ways you have to sing Lullabies. But it’s a powerful restriction you’re dealing with, too. Be very careful when you cast. Blasting through a door like an idiot is one way to kill yourself, but impaling yourself on a tree branch or a fencepost will work just as well.”
I nodded. “I guess I’ll be seeing you in the bathhouse quite a bit.”
“Everyday, Narova. Everyday for a long time.”
I stood up to leave.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Rynoa said, picking up her silverware again. “Your new quarters are ready. It’s the black door with the red latch. Grab your things from the Barracks and say goodbye to moldy hay mattresses.”
There were three men I didn’t recognize sitting at the broken table in the Untouched Barracks, sharing a big jug of cheap brandy. Lizard was there too.
“Heard you got the magic tap,” he said. “How’s it feel to be Touched?”
“I’m liking it so far,” I said.
How do you explain the feeling of magic silk on your bones? The tingle between your thighs or the scream of the earth when you cast your spell? I didn’t think it was worth trying.
“These are the replacements.” Lizard motioned to the three newcomers. “For Ulnar and you. And Ortega from way back.”
“Falen works fast,” I said.
“Man has a gift for recruiting new Sleepers.”
I looked at the three men. Two of them were probably brothers—they had the same oily dark hair and small eyes. The third was short and had arms as thick as my chest. You could tell they were seasoned killers, not used to being at the lowest rung of a ladder. Falen had trained me up when I was still mostly a child, but the majority of the recruits were like these three—mercenaries or knights who figured life was too short for so much guard duty and no chance at a spell. I realized they wanted to me be—a Touched sleeper bumping shoulders with living legends in the hallways.
“Welcome to the Black Hand,” I said. They raised their mugs to me and mumbled gratitude.
There was an awkward silence while I packed up my things—a good candle, a mortar and pestle that smelled of nightshade, and an extra set of boots. I passed Izzy on my way back to the Touched side of the Holdfast.
“Well, well. The wild Skagit returns to us a sorceress.” She smiled at me, showing off those crooked teeth. “I’m glad for you.” Her smile lingered a second too long to be genuine. I believed what she said, but I could tell she was pissed and jealous right alongside being glad. Sleepers don’t have much use for sympathetic joy.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Anything happen with that Hex?”
I pulled the monkey-stomach out from between my tits—I’d tied it in a necklace with a bit of rawhide so it’d be easy to reach—and gave Izzy a look. “No sight of it so far.”
“Well, if the curse ever shows up, I hope my little tincture works. It’s a valuable thing, having a Touched Sleeper that owes you a favor.”
“I already owe you one favor. That bear skin saved my life on the last Lullaby. I’d have frozen solid in the wilds without it.”
We lingered in the hall a moment longer, neither of us knowing what to say. Izzy and I would never rub against each other beneath bear cloaks again, that much was clear. The easy camaraderie and simple sex was clouded and complicated now. I’d spent too much time wanting a spell, wanting to be a part of the Touched Sleeper’s world, I hadn’t given any thought to the things I’d lose once it was mine. Izzy was probably going to be the first of many things.
My quarters were small but comfortable in an extreme kind of way. There was a feather bed laid into a stone nook carved out of the wall. Goose down pillows. A carpet that felt like a baby goat’s fur. A low, circular table made from black polished wood and covered with candles. For some reason, the room sparked a small bit of sadness brewing down on my insides, so I lit one of my new candles, stripped naked, and pleasured myself on my new bed until I felt better.
It worked pretty well. I fell asleep and woke up hours later to Vexen Green filling the entrance to my room. I hadn’t heard him open the door.
“It’s time, Narova.”