It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Daniel Abraham. So, in my ever increasing efforts to promote the genre’s second-hardest working author (because, let’s be honest here, no one can hold a candle to Brandon Sanderson), and one its best-kept secrets, here’s an exclusive excerpt from The King’s Blood, the second volume in The Dagger and the Coin. It’s a tremendous novel and improves on its predecessor in almost every way. If you’re interested, you can read my review of The King’s Blood.
The King’s Blood is available now in the UK and North America from Orbit Books.
Cithrin bel Sarcour
Cithrin bel Sarcour, voice of the Medean bank in Porte Oliva, stepped out of the bank's office with her head high, her features composed, and rage burning in her breast. Around her, Porte Oliva was entering its springtime. The bright cloth banners and glittering paste jewels of the First Thaw celebrations still lay in the streets and alleyways, slowly decaying into grime. Snow haunted the shadows where the midday sun couldn't reach. Cithrin's breath plumed before her as if her heart were a furnace belching pale smoke, and she felt the bite of the air as a distant thing.
Men and women of several races bustled on the cobbles before her. Kurtadam with their slick, beaded pelts; thin-faced, pale Cinnae; brass-and-gold-scaled Jasuru; black-chitined Timzinae; and fleshy, rose-cheeked Firstblood. Some nodded to her, some stepped out of her way, most ignored her. She might represent one of the greatest banks in the world, but as far as the hazy sky over Porte Oliva cared, she was just another half-Cinnae girl in a well-tailored dress.
When she stepped into the taproom, the warm air caressed her. The related, yeasty scents of beer and bread tried to gentle her, and she felt some of the knot in her gut begin to ease. The anger slipped, showing itself only a mask for the despair and frustration beneath. A young Cinnae man came forward to take her shawl, and she managed a tight-lipped smile as she relinquished it.
"The usual table, Magistra?" he asked.
"Thank you, Verril," she said. "That would be kind."
Grinning, he made an exaggerated bow, and gestured her on. Another day, she might have found it charming. The table was at the back, half hidden from the main room by a draped cloth. It cost a few coins more. When she felt capable of civil conversation, she would sometimes sit at the common benches, striking up conversation with whoever was there. There were more sailors and gossip of travelers farther south at the docks, more word of overland trade north where the dragon's road opened to the main square and the cathedral and the governor's palace, but the taproom was nearest to her bank–her bank, by God–and not every conversation needed to be a bid for advantage.
The Kurtadam girl who most often served in the daytimes brought a plate of cheese and brown bread with a tiny carved-wood bowl full of black raisins. More to the point, she brought a tankard of good beer. Cithrin nodded sharply and tried to make her smile genuine. If the girl saw anything odd in her, the soft fur of her face covered it. Kurtadam would make good card players, Cithrin thought as she drank. All of them wearing masks all the time.
The front door opened, light spilling into the main room. A shadow moved into it. Without seeing a single detail of face or body, without so much as a cleared throat, Cithrin recognized Yardem Hane. He was the second in command of her guardsmen–her guardsmen–and one of two men who had known her since her flight from Vanai. With that city burned and all its residents dead, that made him someone who'd known her longer than anyone alive.
The Tralgu walked gently across the floor. For so large a race, the Tralgu could be uncannily quiet. He sat down on the bench beside her. His high, doglike ears pointed forward. He smelled like old leather and sword oil. His sigh was long and deep.
"Went poorly, then?" he said.
"Did," Cithrin said, trying to match the laconic banter Yardem and Captain Wester employed. But the words wouldn't stop coming. "She barely even heard me out. I spent all winter negotiating that deal. Yes, there are risks, but they're good risks."
"Pyk didn't think so."
"Apparently not," Cithrin said. "God damn, but I hate that woman."
Cithrin had known from the moment the deal was made that answering to her notary would chafe. For months, Cithrin had exercised total control over the wealth of her branch of the Medean bank. Any loan she'd thought worthy, she'd made. Any partnership she'd felt wise, she'd entered. She'd cut thumbs on dozens of agreements and contracts, and she'd made good profits overall. Only, of course, the foundation documents of the bank had been forged and the contracts she'd signed illegal. It was still four months before she reached majority, inherited her parents' holdings in the bank, and became fully adult in the eyes of the law. But even after that, the role she'd taken on of an older woman and only a quarter Firstblood would remain hers. The bank was built on lies and fraud, and her discretion would be needed for years before the suspect agreements could all be purged. She fantasized about throwing it all to the wind just to spite the notary sent from the holding company in Carse. Pyk Usterhall.
You'll sign nothing. All agreements are signed by the notary. And the notary alone. Negotiations don't happen without the notary present. If you're overruled, you accept it. Control rests with the holding company. You're a figurehead. Nothing more.
Those were the terms she'd been offered, and she had agreed to them. At the time she'd been half drunk with relief that she'd kept any hold at all. She'd felt certain that once the notary was in place, it would be a matter of time before she could maneuver herself back into real power. The period in between would be a necessary test of her patience, but nothing worse than that. In the weeks before the notary's arrival, she'd fallen asleep every night imagining herself playing meek before some well-seasoned member of the bank, offering insights that would catch the new man's attention, building up her reputation with him until he trusted her judgment. From there, she told herself, it would be a short leap to making policy for her bank again. Her work was only to win over one man. Even if it was difficult, it was possible.
It had been a pretty story.
Pyk Usterhall arrived in the dead of winter. Cithrin had been in the café across from the Grand Market where she paid Maestro Asanpur a few coins for the use of a private room at the back. Winter's dark came early, even so far south as Porte Oliva, and there was little to do in the dark, cold afternoons besides play tiles and drink down the ancient, half-blind Cinnae's stock of coffee beans. That day, there had been four Firstblood queensmen resting after their patrol in the café trading jokes and stories with a Timzinae merchant. The Timzinae had been wintering in Birancour before heading back to Elassae in the spring, and Cithrin had been laughing at his jokes for days, waiting to see if some news of that nation might slip from him. The six of them had pushed two of the tables together and were playing a complex round of tiles when the door had swung open and a cold draught had washed away the warmth of the room, literally and figuratively.
At first, Cithrin thought the woman was an enormously fat Firstblood. She was huge, wide across the hips and shoulders both, fat and strong both. She stepped into the room, her tread heavy on the floorboards, and unwound the black wool scarf from around her head. Her hair was grey where it wasn't black. Heavy jowls and full lips gave her a fishlike expression. When she pursed her lips, the gaps where her tusks had been filed off came clear. A Yemmu.
"You'll be Cithrin bel Sarcour then," the woman had said. "I'm your notary. You have somewhere we can speak?"
Cithrin rose at once, leading Pyk back to the private room. Once the door was closed, Pyk lowered herself to the little table, scowling.
"Playing games with the city guard? That's how you run this place? I'd have thought Komme Medean's voice would be at the Governor's Palace or dining with someone important."
Cithrin still felt the thickness in her throat when she remembered the words and the scorn that soured them.
"There's little going on in the coldest months," Cithrin had said, cursing herself silently for the apology in her tone.
"For you, I'd guess that's truth," Pyk said. "I've got work to do. You want to bring me the books here, or is there someplace you do the real business?"
Every day since had been another minor humiliation, another opportunity for the notary to remind Cithrin that she controlled nothing, another scathing comment. For weeks, Cithrin had swallowed it all with a smile. And for months after that, she'd at least borne it. If there had been even a pause in the assault, a crack in the dismissive façade, she'd have counted it a victory.
There had been nothing.
"Did she say why?" Yardem asked.
"She won't deal with Southlings," Cithrin said. "Apparently a pod of them killed some part of her family in Pût nine or ten generations ago."
Yardem turned to her, his ears shifted to lie back almost flat against his skull. Cithrin drank deeply from her beer.
"I know," she said. "But what am I supposed to do about it? No negotiations without the notary present. I'm not permitted to sign, even. And if she doesn't cut thumbs on it, it doesn't happen."
As part of her bargain, Cithrin had surrendered all the leverage she had over the bank. If Pyk sent a message back to Carse saying that Cithrin was a liability to the bank, Cithrin had nothing that would keep them from separating her from the business. She broke off a crust of bread, chewing on it absently. It could have been spiced with dirt for all the pleasure she took in it. Yardem pointed at the plate, and she pushed it toward him. He pinched a corner from the cheese and popped it into his mouth. They chewed in silence for a long moment. The fire murmured in its grate. From the alley, a dog yelped.
"I have to go tell him," Cithrin said, then took another long drink.
"Company? I'm stood down for the day."
"He won't get violent," Cithrin said. "He isn't like that."
"Could offer moral support. Encouragement."
Cithrin laughed once, mirthless.
"That's why I'm drinking," she said.
She looked over at him. His eyes were deep brown, his head broad. He had a scar just under his left ear she'd never noticed before. Yardem had been a priest once, before he'd been a sellsword. The beer sat in its tankard. One wouldn't do much. Two would leave her feeling looser and less upset. But it would also tempt her to reach for a third, and by the fourth she'd be ready to postpone the unpleasant until tomorrow. Better, she thought, to end it quickly and sleep without dreading it in the morning.
She pushed the tankard back, and Yardem stood to let her up.
The boarding house was in the middle of the salt quarter, not far from the little rooms Cithrin, Yardem, and Marcus Wester had hidden in during their first days in the city. The salt quarter streets were narrow and twisted. In some places, the streets were so narrow that Cithrin's fingertips could have brushed the buildings on both sides. Everything stank of raw sewage and brine. By the time they reached the whitewashed walls and faded blue windows of the house, the hem of her dress was black and her feet cold and aching. She pulled her shawl closer about her shoulders and went up the two low steps to the common door. Yardem leaned against the wall, his expression empty but his ears high. Cithrin knocked.
She had hoped that someone else would answer. One of the other boarders or the man who kept the house. Something that would postpone the actual conversation for another minute or two. Luck wasn't with her. Or, more likely, he'd been perched by the door, waiting for word from her. His ash-grey skin and the oversized black eyes of his race made him seem childlike. His smile was bright and tentative at the same time.
"Magistra Cithrin," he said, as if her appearance were a delightful surprise. Her heart thickened. "Please come in. I was just making tea. Have some, have some. And your Tralgu friend."
Cithrin looked back at Yardem. She thought there was pity in his expression and she wasn't certain who it belonged to.
"I'll be right back," she said.
"I'll be right here," he rumbled.
The common sitting room smelled damp despite the little stove that kept the air almost uncomfortably warm. The high, wailing voice of a colicky child forced its way from somewhere in the back, even when the doors were shut. Cithrin sat on a cushioned bench with lank tassels of red and orange that had probably been beautiful once.
"I'm pleased to see you," the Southling man said. "I've been writing to my son in Lyoneia, and I just got a message back. He said that he could–"
"–have a full shipment as early as midsummer. Last year's nuts are dried and ready to grind. He said they smell like flowers and smoke. He was always good with words that way. Flowers and smoke. Don't you think?"
He knew then. Or guessed. The words flowed out of him, pushing hers back. As if he could keep the inevitable at bay. Cithrin remembered being at the seashore sometime when she'd been very young. Maybe even before her parents had died. She knew what it was like to try stopping a wave with your hands.
"The bank can't move forward with this plan," Cithrin said. "I'm very sorry."
The man's mouth kept working, trying to bring out new syllables. His brows shifted, rising in the center and falling at the ends until he looked like the caricature of loss and disappointment. Cithrin forced herself to take a breath. Her stomach hurt. When he spoke, his voice was small.
"I don't understand, Magistra."
"I've had some new information arrive, unrelated to our conversations, and I'm afraid at the moment it isn't possible for the bank to move forward with the loan you would need."
"If, if, if I could just read you the letter my son sent me, Magistra. You see, we could–"
The man swallowed, closed his massive eyes and hung his head.
"Can I ask why not?"
Because you've got the wrong eyes, Cithrin thought. Because my notary won't let me. I'm as sorry about this as you. I think you're right. She thought all the things she couldn't say, because they would mean admitting that she was ruled by Pyk Usterhall. If that became public knowledge, the last bit of influence she had over her bank would be gone. So instead she hardened her soul and pretended to be a banker who was working her own will, and who had the power to match her responsibilities.
"You know I can't divulge other people's conversations with me," she said. "Any more than I would disclose our discussions to them."
"No. Of course not," he said and opened his eyes. "Is there any chance you might reconsider?"
"I'm afraid not," she said, every word costing her.
"All right. Thank you, then. Did–did you still want some tea?"
I'm not drunk," Cithrin said.
"You aren't," Yardem agreed.
"Then why can't I have another glass?"
"Because that's how you stay not drunk."
They hadn't gone back to the taproom. That was where Cithrin went to have meals and polite company. She didn't want those. She wanted to scream and curse and break things with a stick. Frustration and impotence were like a thin iron cage, and she was a finch beating itself to death against them. Her own rooms were above the bank's office and had been since before there had been a bank. It had been a gambler's stall when she'd first walked up the steps. And she'd shared it with Yardem and Marcus Wester and a cartful of crates loaded with silk and gems, tobacco and jewels, and the wax-sealed account books more precious than all the rest put together. Now it held her bed, her desk, her wardrobe. Where there had been bare boards, she'd put a thick red rug to keep her feet warm in winter. A painting hung on the wall over her bed with the mark of the Medean bank worked together with the sigil of Porte Oliva. It had been a gift from the governor.
Cithrin rose from her table, pacing. Voices rose from below them, reminding her how thin the floor was and how sound could travel. There were always guards in the office, making sure that no one could reach the strongbox set in stone beneath the building. It held the hard reserves of the bank. But the real wealth was in the paper–loan agreements, partnerships, depositors' contracts–that were no longer even in the office. They were a long block to the south in the rooms that Pyk had taken for herself, the secret base of the bank.
"She's gutted me," Cithrin said. "She's taken it all."
"That was the agreement," Yardem pointed out.
"I don't care what the agreement was," Cithrin said, fighting to keep her voice–even the tone of it–from leaking to the ears of the guards below her. "It's not just that she disagrees with me. Or that she condescends. She's making bad choices, Yardem. She's walking away with coins still on the table. And she's doing it because she's too proud to take direction from an underage half-Cinnae girl."
Cithrin raised her palms, daring Yardem to disagree. He scratched his knee in a way that made her think it hadn't actually itched.
"Well, I am done with this," Cithrin said. "If she wants war, then she will by God get it."
Once upon a time, there was a writer who wrote novels under three names — well, two and a half, really. Daniel Abraham wrote epic fantasy set other worlds, MLN Hanover wrote urban fantasy set in something very like our world, and James S. A. Corey wrote science fiction set well into the future. In the real world, he was Daniel Abraham, except that James S. A. Corey was written with a partner named Ty Franck.