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Chapter One

“Don’t throw me through the glass,” Indrajit Twang advised his captors. “You’ll like the big crash it makes; it’ll be very dramatic, but your boss won’t thank you. Glass is expensive.”

The thugs hesitated. There were two of them, one a hard-muscled wall with a flat face and an ashen-brown complexion, and the other a blubbery, fishlike pile that seemed to have three mouths, and definitely had four tentacles. The second ruffian had no legs, moving across the floor with a snail-like lower half that contracted and expanded in a continual arching and stretching motion. Whichever of the thousand races of man tough number two belonged to, Indrajit had never seen another member.

Indrajit pushed into the hesitation, trying to lengthen it into a reprieve. “Look, I can’t pay right now, but I can pay…soon. Or with work. How much do I owe?”

Ash-Brown looked over his shoulder at Anaximander Skink, the owner of the Blind Surgeon and also its bartender. Skink was a Wixit, furred except for the pads of his hands and feet, nimble, and about two cubits tall. Skink stood atop the bowed wood of the bar and growled.

“You owe a full Imperial, you sack of Smork droppings.”

Indrajit didn’t know what a Smork was, but the other patrons of the Blind Surgeon, who smelled like fish and oil and sweat, appeared to. They bared teeth and tusks and laughed at Indrajit.

“Come on,” Indrajit pleaded, “you can’t charge me interest on a bar tab.”

“I’m not charging interest.” Skink rolled back black lips to reveal jagged yellow teeth, like a dog’s. Skink’s people ate carrion, and Indrajit suspected that the location of the Blind Surgeon on the West Flats had been chosen so that the smell of fish intestines and brine and fishermen would cloak the stink of flesh Skink left hanging in the back room to rot until it reached the perfect tenderness for his liking. “And I’m rounding down.”

Indrajit hadn’t really kept track. “That seems excessive.”

“Yes. Excessive is a very good word for your tab. That’s why I’m throwing you out.” Skink nodded to Ash-Brown. “He’s right about the window. Just drag him out and beat him up.”

“What if I became your bar’s resident poet?” Indrajit hooked a toe into a protruding board at the base of the bar to stop the thugs from carrying him out. Their strength, and the fact that he was wearing sandals, resulted in immediate sharp pain to his foot. “I could recite every night. Stand in the corner and declaim. All the best drinking establishments have resident poets.”

A stage to work from might even help Indrajit find what he was looking for.

The Wixit snorted. “No, they don’t.”

“You could start a trend, then. Attract a new class of clientele, instead of these uncultured swine.”

The uncultured swine jeered.

Skink waved a crooked digit at his thugs and they stopped pulling. “New poems?”

Indrajit took a deep breath. “I don’t really write new poems. Not like you’re thinking, anyway.”

Skink snorted. “No one wants to hear the Blotchiad, Twang.”

Indrajit wanted to straighten himself up into a dignified stance, but the thugs prevented him. Writhing, he managed to push his chest out a few inches. “The Blaatshi Epic is the great song of my people. My parents were deeply honored when I, as a young boy, was selected to learn to perform it in its entirety, in thirty thousand lines. They sacrificed two goats in celebration.”

“First of all,” Skink said, holding up long-nailed digits to count off his objections, “it isn’t a song. There’s no music; it’s just like the parts where the actors talk in high opera.”

“Recitative.” Indrajit sniffed.

“Secondly, nobody speaks Blaatshi, so it just sounds like you’re a Spirit Talker, standing in the corner babbling in a trance.”

“I could translate,” Indrajit offered.

“Thirdly, I’ve heard your translations of sections of the Blotchiad, and it doesn’t sound like poetry. It sounds like people making grand vows and prophecies and threats, in the most long-winded fashion imaginable. It’s boring!”

Indrajit gasped.

“Boring!” one of the Blind Surgeon’s fisherman patrons roared, raising his wooden mug.

“Boring!” the others shouted, raising their own drinks in response.

“Fourthly, you then try to make listeners stand up and act out the scenes.”

“That’s the art,” Indrajit said. “You don’t understand the glory of what I do. This is the entire history of my people, from the Darkness that Ate the World to my great-grandfather’s time. The deeds and words are too important to be smothered with music, and the act of emulating the historical figures imprints key passages on the minds of listeners. It is participatory drama, and I am four hundred twenty-seventh in the line of artists who have devoted their lives to performing it. I’m a storyteller, an actor, and a historian. The performance of the Blaatshi Epic is the greatest spiritual, artistic, and cultural experience a person can have.”

“You know what I think a great performance is?” Skink asked.

Indrajit shook his head. “Tell me.”

“Anything that makes people buy more drink. The Blotchiad makes people want to kill themselves.” Skink nodded to his bruisers. “Make sure he remembers this. Break, say, two bones.”

“Do you have a preference for which ones?” Ash-Brown asked. “Maybe that bony nose-ridge he’s got?”

Skink turned the question to Indrajit with a polite raising of the dark hairs at the base of his forehead.

“How about a metaphorical bone?” Indrajit suggested. “What if you just deeply wound my pride? As indeed, you already have, with your callous and uncultured disdain for the pinnacle of my people’s learning.”

“How many of your people are there?” Skink asked. “In that valley over there on the other side of Ildarion, or wherever it is you said you come from?”

“Three hundred,” Indrajit said. “When I left.”

“So, what? Maybe two hundred now, given how bad recent harvests have been?”

Indrajit ground his teeth. “My people fish. You would know that if you paid attention to the Epic.”

Skink shrugged, a gesture that folded his little body nearly in two. “Three hundred green fishermen no one’s ever heard of, lords of nothing, living nowhere special. Nobody wants to hear your epic. Nobody ever will. Of all the epics of all the thousand races of man, if I had to rank them in order of which I’d most like to hear next, the Blotchiad would come in dead last, after Smork farts.”

The furry innkeeper’s words stung. Skink was right, no one wanted to hear the Epic. No one wanted to learn to recite it anymore, either; this was Indrajit’s great challenge in life. “We’re not green. Our skin has a pleasing mahogany tint with just the faintest hint of green to it.”

“There’s lots of brown people,” Skink said. “Forgive me for noticing the green, but it stands out more. Are you going to pick two bones to get broken, or am I going to raise the number to four?”

“How badly will you break them?” Indrajit wasn’t sure whether he was asking Skink or the thugs.

“Does it really matter?” Skink growled.

Indrajit Twang wished he hadn’t sold his sword. He sighed. “The left arm. Upper and lower.”

“You know what? I’m feeling generous. Just break the forearm, boys. Mind you, I want him bruised, too, and leave a little blood on the stones. It’ll let other customers know I’m serious.”

The two thugs dragged Indrajit toward the door. His sandal heels scraped across the baked clay floor.

“I could make up new poems!” Indrajit wasn’t sure he could, actually. He knew the rhythms and rules of the Epic deep in his bones, and could spin out new verses to it as easily as he could breathe—indeed, one of his duties was to add a new generation to the Epic, the generation of his grandmother—but that wouldn’t satisfy Skink. Skink would want low bawdy, or love poems, or popular songs, the kind that got printed on large sheets of paper and sold in the street for two bits each.

“Too late!” Skink snapped.

“But this squares us up, right?” Indrajit called. “We’re even?”

“No.” Skink dropped down behind the bar, where a series of planks nailed together to form a walkway let him stand eye to eye with customers. “No, you still owe me an Imperial, and your tab is closed until you pay in full.”

Ash-Brown and Blubber dragged Indrajit outside.

The knotted, salt-encrusted strips of leather that hung in the doorway and served the inn for a door scratched Indrajit’s face. Outside, despite the proximity of the water—only thirty paces away or so down a tangled alleyway, Indrajit could hear the slap of waves on slimy rocks—the air smelled marginally better. Cleaner. More salt and bird and fish, less sweat and tooth decay.

“Can I pay you guys not to beat me up?” he offered.

Ash-Brown and Blubber hurled him to the rocks. These were wide, flat paving stones of old Kish, laid in Imperial times. This close to the water, they might even be older: Druvash work, most of which was buried under the thousands of years of detritus and construction that created the sagging heap over which Kish lay slung.

“You can’t pay Skink. How could you pay us?” These were the first words Blubber had spoken. They sounded soft around the edges and slow, as if he were speaking through a mouthful of water, and a thin stream of mucus fell from his lips.

A trickle of sewage flowed past Indrajit’s head across the stones. It must flow down from the heights of Kish above him, but the watery stools of the wealthy denizens of the Crown smelled no better than those turned loose natively upon the West Flats.

From his position lying on the ground, the two ruffians looked enormous. “I could owe you.”

Ash-Brown laughed, and then punched Indrajit in the stomach.

All his breath rushed from Indrajit’s lungs. By instinct more than by skill, he kicked at Ash-Brown’s knees with both feet. Scoring a hit, he knocked the thug over backward and into the stream of filth.

Blubber made a bass squeaking sound.

Indrajit rolled away from Blubber to climb to his feet, but found a hostile wall of hands, claws, and tentacles to meet him. The other patrons of the Blind Surgeon, the paying ones, stood in a beer-soused and laughing row. They grabbed Indrajit Twang and threw him back at the two thugs.

“Boring!” the patrons yelled.

Ash-Brown was standing, his hand grabbing the wire-wrapped hilt of a big chopping knife at his belt. Indrajit danced to the right, wound up, and threw a punch.

He hit Ash-Brown in the face and dropped him to the stones.

Blubber grabbed Indrajit Twang from behind with all four of his tentacles. He raised the poet into the air with sudden and surprising force, turning him upside down. As his feet left the ground, Indrajit’s thoughts were ripped from the scene, and he found himself wondering three things.

First, how dense must Blubber’s muscles be? He was as strong as a horse, but no bigger than Indrajit himself. And if his muscles were that powerful, were his bones made of iron?

And also, by what right did Indrajit think of Blubber as male? For all he knew, the thug might be a female, or intersex, or some kind of other option.

And finally, was he, Indrajit Twang, four hundred twenty-seventh Recital Thane of the Blaatshi Epic, about to die of a broken back?


This was a new voice, a man’s, baritone. It spoke with the gravel of authority, and Blubber froze.

Looking down on the scene from his vantage point eight feet off the ground, Indrajit saw that the new arrival had a retinue. Four lavender-skinned men with tails—Zalaptings, one of Kish’s most ubiquitous races of man, and he knew they were men because they had ragged blue beards under their long, lavender snouts—held the tips of their spears poked gently into Blubber’s skin. Zalaptings were notoriously difficult to tell apart, if you weren’t a Zalapting yourself. These Zalaptings wore linothorax like professionals, but no visible insignia. Jobbers, maybe?

Behind the spearmen stood the speaker with the gravel voice. He had no arms, and legs with knees that bent backward and ended in claws, like a bird’s, and a solemn face nesting inside a collar of wiggling antennae. The speaker was black as jet, but for his bright orange legs.

Blubber bent as if he might set Indrajit down, and Bird Legs shook his head. “Hold still.”

The thug froze.

Indrajit’s kilt fell down around his belly. “Hello,” he said, as politely as he could. “Do I know you?”

Bird Legs ignored him, and instead faced Skink. The Wixit bounced on his hind legs, shaking his fist at the new arrival, apparently unconcerned about the presence of the four spearmen.

The tavern’s patrons booed. “Break his arms!” Several took a step forward, as if intent on intervening in the face-off, but Bird Legs glared lightning at them and they stepped back into place. “Show us some blood!”

“This man owes me!” Skink squealed. “My employees are administering a legitimate beating!”

“I’d be interested in hearing more about your ideas of legitimacy.” Bird Legs’s voice dropped into a deep purr. “But he owes my master a prior debt. And unless your prices are surprisingly high, a larger one.”

Skink hesitated. “You have…court papers?”

Bird Legs looked thoughtfully at the innkeeper. “What does Indrajit Twang owe you?”

Indrajit cleared his throat. “I’m happy to be on a first-name basis, but, ah, you have me at an advantage.” Two of Blubber’s tentacles gripped him around the hips, and they were cutting off the flow of blood. His feet were beginning to tingle.

“Two Imperials,” Skink said.

Bird Legs stared deeply into Skink’s eyes, and the Wixit took a step back. Then the obsidian-skinned, two-legged man laughed. “Meaning that he owes you half, and you told him he owed one.”

“Hey!” Indrajit said.

Skink flared his nostrils and crossed his arms over his chest.

“Very well.” Bird Legs coughed several times, a deep, phlegmy, grating sound, and then spat on the stone. The blob of phlegm struck with a soft metallic clink. “You will find three Imperials in there. My master now owns your debt.”

The Blind Surgeon’s patrons, disappointed that no blood was to be shed, were shuffling back into the inn. Skink rushed to the blob of mucus and quickly extracted three coins, running a digit around the rim of each to check that they hadn’t been clipped. “Fresh from the Mint,” he commented.

“My employer is one of the lords of the Paper Sook,” Bird Legs rumbled. “He wouldn’t pass light coins.”

The Paper Sook. Indrajit’s heart fell. “Ah…so, your master is—”

“Holy-Pot Diaphernes, of course.”

Anaximander Skink’s spine went straight as an arrow and he bounced back into his doorway.

Diaphernes was a risk-merchant. This was a business Indrajit understood only poorly, and his one foray into the field, a brief recent stint working as a collector for Holy-Pot Diaphernes himself, had ended badly. He’d only managed to collect part of the debt owed to Holy-Pot by an Ildarian baron’s son, and hadn’t been able to bring himself to break the man’s legs to encourage him to come up with the rest. Worse, though Indrajit had intended to hand what he had collected over to Holy-Pot, he had…failed.

He hadn’t intended to spend the money, but somehow the money had been spent.

That was a week earlier. He’d been avoiding Holy-Pot since.

“I see we have a friend in common.” Indrajit smiled. The blood pooling in his head was making him feel dizzy.

“Holy-Pot Diaphernes is no one’s friend. Not mine, and certainly not yours.” Bird Legs frowned. “You are summoned. If I order this man to let you down, will you go to Diaphernes’s office?”

“Yes. Holy-Pot and I are…overdue for a meeting.”

“You acknowledge your debt.”

Indrajit nodded. “I pay late sometimes, but I pay.”

Bird Legs nodded at Blubber, who dropped Indrajit to the ground. Shaken and aching, Indrajit stood. Looking up and down the street, he saw a steady flow of traffic—fishers and merchants—but no uniforms, no one who looked like law enforcement. He stooped and took the chopping knife, sheath and all, from Ash-Brown, shoving it under the rope belt that held up his kilt.

Blubber murmured in protest but did nothing.

“Who shall I say sent me?” Indrajit asked Bird Legs.

“My name is Yashta Hossarian,” Bird Legs said.

On wobbling legs, Indrajit walked up toward the higher neighborhoods of Kish.

“Your tab is open again!” Anaximander Skink hollered after him.

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