Chapter 1: An Aukincer’s Pot CHAPTER 1 An Aukincer’s Pot
When Anwei stepped into the trade advisor’s private study, she smelled death. The odor burned in her nose, the dregs of it seared into the ornate desk chair, the walls. It was rank in the very air.
“Don’t touch anything,” she whispered to her partner, Knox, as he slipped through the window to stand next to her.
“I thought the point was to touch things.” Knox looked around the moonlit study. “Stealing usually requires physical contact.” He pulled off the scarf covering his face, caught Anwei’s pointed look at his bared nose and mouth, and grudgingly replaced it. The last year of working together had taught him to respect Anwei’s acute sense of smell, even if he didn’t really understand it.
Their contract was simple. Steal the original Trib figurine the trade advisor had acquired through blackmail. Get it to the magistrate by the next day. It had nothing to do with justice for the poor artist whose sought-after work had been stolen, so far as Anwei could tell. City wardens would have been put on the job instead of a thief if that were the case. No, it seemed more like the magistrate, whose jurists sent thieves and blackmailers to the shipping crews every day, just wanted the little Trib maiden for himself and was angry the governor’s trade advisor had gotten to it first.
Anwei walked over to the rose-carved desk at the center of the room, her eyes glued to the small copper pot that appeared to be the source of the noxious smell. Kneeling by the desk, she opened the advisor’s drawers one by one to look for the figurine, wishing the magistrate had warned her that this particular bureaucrat was messing around with an aukincer. The concoction in the pot was clearly an aukincer’s work—just the smell of it sent prickles down her throat with a silvery, sharp sort of glee, as if even inhaling the air near it would slice her lungs to ribbons. She didn’t want to think what ingesting it would do. But anyone stupid enough to go to an aukincer for magic instead of a healer for medicine deserved what they got.
Knox slid past the desk to inspect the shelves next to it. “Is that what I think it is?” He nodded to the pot. “You’re not going to try to witch the aukincer’s residue off me once we get out of here, are you?”
Anwei rolled her eyes. “If ‘witching’ would fix you, I would have done it a long time ago, Knox.” She pulled open the last two desk drawers, her mind jumping to the list of herbs that would best counter the toxic cloud coming from the pot. She closed the final drawer with a delicate click. No figurine.
No figurine—and no sign of what Anwei was actually looking for in this house either.
The sky-cursed stench of aukincy made it impossible to smell much of anything else in this room. She stood and turned to check the display behind the desk. If the tip that had led her to this house was wrong, she was going to crack some Crowteeth heads. It had been two years since she’d had a solid lead, and if her gang contacts thought they could mess with her—
“Aukincers don’t even promise more years of being young.” Knox’s whisper made Anwei look up. He was by the window, lifting the reed blind to look out. “Just more years—and probably cursed years too, since it’s all supposed to come from forbidden shapeshifter magic. If it were between dying when I’m old and bent, and dying when I’m a few years more old and bent—”
“We all know how you feel about medicine, Knox. Not that this abomination counts as medicine. Even shapeshifters would turn their noses up at this stuff. Why are you over there?”
“We all?” He smirked. “Is that the royal ‘we,’ or have you started sampling your own herbs?”
“Did you hear something out there?” The beginnings of worry pulled Anwei’s limbs tight as he replaced the blind. “We should have three more minutes before the guards do a sweep.”
“I thought I heard footsteps.” He turned from the window. “Maybe I imagined it.”
Knox didn’t imagine things like footsteps. “Let’s get this done and get out of here, just in case. Help me with these last shelves.” Anwei moved toward the case flanking the door, then froze midstep when something other than the stink of aukincy hit her nose. A flare of anticipation burst through her. She stood still, taking a much longer, deeper breath, and sorted through the scents: the sharp bite of ink; the deep, earthy musk of the wooden desk; the sour tang of the wool rug, with coppery aftertones for the dye.
Anwei breathed out. She smelled nothing that mattered.
Barely stopping herself from swearing, Anwei turned her attention to the case she’d meant to search. Two years since she’d found even a hint of her brother’s killer in this sweltering cook pot of a city. Two years since the letter that had sent her running to Chaol. He’d been here, and then he’d disappeared.
Frustration brewed inside Anwei. The tip to investigate the trade advisor had been so promising—and then she’d gotten a request to take something from this very house. It had been perfect. But every lead that came through Anwei’s system of contacts throughout the Commonwealth seemed perfect to her. That was what hope did to you. It made you see things that weren’t really there.
Arun’s face seemed to be imprinted on every surface in the little study—the desk, the walls, the stupid pot—her twin’s expression just as aggressively bored as the day he’d tried to persuade her to sneak away from the town council meeting back on Beilda. The last time she’d seen him before the snake-tooth man got him.
Anwei moved away from the display case, then paused again when a new scent rose to the surface, a thin coat of sickly yellow that festered in her nostrils.
Ah, so that’s why he called an aukincer. The trade advisor was sick.
Of course, she couldn’t be sure of specifics of his illness without finding the man himself. She sighed. Rich men were so hopeful and so stupid at once, as if money could solve any problem, including the ones inside you. But an aukincer’s elixirs weren’t going to help the trade advisor do anything but die faster.
“Found it!” Knox slid over to a side table. Anwei jerked from her train of thought and joined him. The little statue was all cheekbones and full skirts, her coquettish look enough to earn her a place in the lovers’ temple next to Freia, their patron goddess. Knox reached out to take the figurine, but his fingers stopped just shy of it. He looked at Anwei. “Is it safe to touch?”
Anwei sniffed experimentally, but it was only for show. The aukincy contamination wasn’t so bad on this side of the room. “I think you’d at least get to the door with it. Maybe even out of the compound.” She scrunched her nose, looking at the little figurine. It was pretty enough, but thirty bronze coins for a girl made of stone? It wasn’t just health that rich men were stupid about.
Knox was still staring at her with a concerned frown, so Anwei gave him a bright smile. At least the magistrate would have his figurine. That meant referrals. More jobs. Money to pay bribes and to buy the equipment that allowed her to search this city house by house for the snake-tooth man’s scent. “Don’t worry, Knox. I’ll carry your body back to the apothecary and put your cut of the money in your grave. Shall we?” There was nothing here for Anwei to find. The lead that had filled her with so much hope was worthless, just like all the others had been.
She strode toward the window and checked the courtyard outside. It was still clear. They had another two minutes before the guard would patrol past the office. When she turned back to Knox, his brow was knotted and he still hadn’t taken the figurine. “This isn’t one of those times I’m going to be sad that I thought you were joking, is it?”
“It’s fine, Knox. We’ll just burn all your clothes.”
“You know how little clothing I own.” He pulled out a handkerchief, wrapped it around the figurine, and shoved the little Trib statue into his pocket.
Anwei’s smile strained a bit at the edges. Knox had plenty of money for clothes; he just seemed to like stashing it in the box under his bed better than spending it. One coin at a time until he saved enough to leave this city—to leave this country. It wasn’t that Anwei couldn’t do jobs without him, but after so many years of sneaking into fancy houses alone, then going home to sift through the clues she found alone, eating alone, sleeping alone… well, that last part certainly wasn’t going to change, but having Knox only a room away to worry if she didn’t come home was nice. Her contacts in the gangs might notice if she went missing, she supposed, but they’d only come poking around for spoils.
Maybe she should broach the subject again. Convince Knox that staying in Chaol was safer than leaving.
Anwei held the window covering back for Knox to climb through, but instead of doing so, he dove under the sill, pulling her down with him.
“Calsta’s breath,” he hissed. “There’s someone coming.”
Fear plucked in Anwei’s stomach, the wall hard against her spine. After all her weeks of watching the house, not one of the guards had broken the patrolling schedule. They were supposed to have more time. She forced her muscles to relax, her ears straining to hear whatever it was that had alarmed Knox.
But there was nothing to hear.
Still, she didn’t move. Just as Knox knew to trust her nose, Anwei had learned to listen when he saw or heard things she didn’t.
After a moment the sound of unsteady footsteps tripped across the courtyard, only to stop directly outside the study. A swish of wind blew in through the tightly woven mat covering the window, fanning a sickly scent of decay from outside into Anwei’s nose. It had to be the trade advisor himself, unless there were two men in this compound with their stomachs rotting from the inside.
A key rattled in door’s lock. The advisor is just an ailing old man, she told herself. This will be easier to get out of than that time Knox accidentally woke the governor’s wife with her silver candlesticks in his hands.
Anwei slunk over to the door, gesturing for Knox to wait. He nodded, ready to move the moment she did. As the advisor lifted the latch, she wrenched the door open. The old man stumbled into the study and landed on his knees. Anwei flitted past him like a breeze, out the door before he could’ve seen more than her shadow. When she looked back, the advisor was still on the floor and Knox had already disappeared into the night.
Heading toward the compound’s outer wall, Anwei skipped from stone to stone on the raised pathway that led through the garden, a crow of success in her mouth.
Then the trade advisor coughed. A wet, ugly sound.
Her feet slowed, and she couldn’t help but look back at the bureaucrat on the floor. His shoulders curved down as another cough racked his chest, something inky and red spilling out onto his hands. The sickly yellow smell of his illness spiraled around Anwei. Taking the aukincer’s brew had made whatever was wrong with the trade advisor much worse. She slipped a hand into the bag hidden under her robe, wishing she’d brought something that might help him—
A pole rapped across her shoulders. Anwei wrenched herself from her relapse into herbs and diseases just in time to block a second blow from the guard aimed at her head. She stumbled to the side, angry at herself for missing the smells she should have been looking for. Now they flooded over her in quick succession: the pork and sugared eggplant that the guard had eaten for dinner; the dusting of geratry root that colored the first two fingers of his right hand gray, the smell like burned pepper; boot polish and a rotten tooth. She dodged the pole’s third blow and pushed closer to the guard so she’d be too close for him to use it. He dropped the weapon and slammed her into the wall.
Anwei’s eyes swam as her head hit brick, her hands snaking toward her medicine bag just as the guard’s forearm pressed into her throat. His body trapped her arms. Fear swarmed inside her as she strained to reach her bag. She fought for air, the scents around her turning sharp, the man’s grizzled face like an auroshe with all its teeth bared.
A stone sailed straight into the guard’s helmet, hitting with a hollow clang. The guard bit off a curse, and the pressure of his arm on Anwei’s throat slackened just enough to let her slide sideways and plunge a hand into the medicine bag. She came up with a handful of powdered corta petals and ground them into the guard’s face. He reared back and clawed at his eyes and nose, letting Anwei scramble away.
She ran to the aviary, thanking every star in the sky for the millionth time that she’d stopped working alone. Without Knox, she may actually have been caught that time. Cages of geese, ducks, and sparrows swung in the dim lantern light, the birds agitated to honking and calling, as if they wished to do their part in protecting the trade advisor’s home. Anwei scrambled up the cages, swearing when her muscles started burning long before she got to the top. It was at that moment—ducks and geese honking avian obscenities in her direction, the salty ocean wind clawing through her hair—that Anwei smelled it.
The black, empty nothing scent of Arun’s murder.
She froze even as the shouts and clatter of armored feet on the cobblestones behind her got closer. If the smell was here, then—
“Anwei!” Knox’s voice grabbed her from below, where he was crouched by the wall. Stray hair from his blunt nub of a ponytail hung down the sides of his face as he stared up at her. “What are you doing?”
Anwei cast one frustrated look into the compound, then jumped onto the street and ran to catch up with Knox because he’d started walking without her. “They always go for you,” he murmured when she’d drawn even with him.
“I’m the pretty one.” Anwei caught hold of his long tunic and pulled him into an alleyway as shouts from the trade advisor’s house spilled out into the street after them. The waterway dividing them from the next cay over was tantalizingly close, but they’d left their boat at home for this trip. The bridge between the two islands was clogged with nobles sporting khonin knots in their hair to mark their status. They glittered, as the rich often did. The trade advisor was on the less opulent side of the Water Cay—he was only a second khonin, the two knots in his long hair ensuring everyone knew—close to the bridge leading to the next island in the river-mouth chain that made up the city of Chaol. Because Anwei didn’t feel like a nighttime swim, escape would have to be over that bridge.
Anwei cleared her throat once the guards had blundered past, the feel of that steel-lined sleeve still pressing against her vocal cords. Knox pulled the scarf from his face, snapped his fingers impatiently for Anwei’s outer robe, and waited with his hand outstretched until she’d pulled it over her head to bare the more brightly colored one underneath. Guards tended not to see Knox, even when he was right in front of them. It was one of the many benefits Anwei hadn’t anticipated when she’d first taken him on.
“If we’re going to start comparing who’s prettiest, we should probably set some parameters.” He stuffed the robe into Anwei’s bag. “Are we talking face symmetry? Body proportions? Are these guards really objective observers, or—”
“I’m sure there are some people who think you’re prettier. There was that whole incident with the Warlord’s Devoted the day we met, don’t you remember?”
Knox’s head jerked back to look at her, but only for a second. He pulled the medicine bag’s flap closed, then went back to watching the street. Regret tasted tinny in Anwei’s mouth. Perhaps some things would never be funny.
“Thank you for staying long enough to make sure I got out,” she said, changing the subject. “That was a good throw.”
“You okay?” he asked, still not looking at her.
“Fine.” Anwei coughed, the burning in her throat bringing back the hunched image of the trade advisor, blood on his hands. But she banished that image in favor of the whiff she’d caught of the snake-tooth man’s nothing smell. She had something at last, which meant she was better than fine. “Let’s go.”
Anwei slid out from the alleyway, and Knox fell in next to her, draping an arm around her waist in a way she hoped would appear less forced than it felt. They walked past another set of guards in the advisor’s colors when they got to the bottom of the hill and started across the bridge. Chaol’s dry market glistened with torches and candles from across the channel, the drum tower looming over it all from the ocean side of the island.
“Hey, you two!”
Anwei quickened her steps, her soft leather boots sticking to the still-warm cobblestones. Knox matched her speed across the bridge’s huge, weathered stones, the market’s tents and booths and chatter waiting with outstretched arms to hide them on the other side. The smell of cook fires and spices from the southern provinces filled Anwei’s nose. It took only seconds for her and Knox to lose themselves in the milling sellers and malt-buzzed patrons, all elbows, open sandals, and smoke.
They strolled, watching with concern like everyone else when guards pushed past them through the crowd. Anwei bought a juicy kebab with change from her pocket, though Knox only wrinkled his nose when she offered him a bite. By the time she’d finished it, they’d reached the edge of the market, the crowds thinning around them like watered-down soup. Knox’s arm dropped from Anwei’s waist, leaving her both relieved and a little cold.
“Another hard day’s work complete. And no one poked any holes in us!” Triumph rose like a sun in Anwei’s chest, making her want to dance Knox back through the market one playful step at a time. Not that he’d comply. She wouldn’t think about the advisor curled up on his own steps. She wouldn’t. “I’m still hungry. Let’s—”
“Watch out!” Knox grabbed Anwei’s arm and wrenched her backward into a stairwell. The Trib maiden’s angles and curves pressed into Anwei’s spine through his pocket. Still elated, Anwei didn’t freeze completely until she heard it. The hollow clop of cloven hooves on stone.
An auroshe? She shivered at the thought of those monsters with their long serrated teeth and razor-sharp horns—and that was nothing compared with the soldiers who rode them. But there hadn’t been Commonwealth soldiers in Chaol since a year ago, when Anwei had first found Knox. Why would they be here now? And would they be ordinary Roosters, or… they couldn’t possibly be Devoted, could they?
The threads of triumph in Anwei’s stomach pulled tight, then snapped with a painful twang. She’d run across many Roosters in her travels throughout the country, although Chaol itself was a little out of the way for them to be stationed. But she’d never seen a true Devoted until the day Knox fell into her life with a whole group of them chasing after him like parchwolves hunting their prey.
That’s what Devoted did when one of their own tried to escape.
Anwei could feel Knox’s breathing slow against her back, her partner going stone still as two auroshes rode into view, one black, one white. Their manes and long tails were tied in intricate knots that mimicked their riders’ distinctive braids, the white with one slender horn protruding from its brow, the black with two that stuck out from its head like twin lightning bolts. The sight of the creatures curdled Anwei’s belly, but when she spotted their riders, she released a breath. “They’re just Roosters, Knox, not—”
Knox’s hand slipped over her mouth to stop her from saying more. The Roosters passed by the stairwell, their auroshes bowed and tired. They didn’t seem to notice the hush that fell over the closest market stands as they passed, nor the eyes in the crowd that were glued to the Warlord’s crest on their uniforms. The two Roosters broke away from the road and hugged the edge of the market, making for the Water Cay bridge, the silence that their presence brought hovering like mist after the riders themselves had melted into the night.
Anwei flinched when the night market patrons began calling to one another once again, drunken students loudly trying out new curses like bits of sugar. A minute passed. Two. “Knox?” Anwei mumbled through his fingers covering her mouth. He still hadn’t moved.
“Just… wait,” he whispered.
She grabbed a handful of his tunic, as if she could anchor him in place. “They weren’t Devoted, and anyway, Devoted can’t track you unless you use your…” Biting her lip, she trailed off, not knowing what it was exactly that he couldn’t use, because the two of them had silently agreed not to ask questions when they’d started working together. Devoted weren’t allowed to say anything about the goddess Calsta or the power she lent them. They had hardly even left their seclusions in the last few years except on the Warlord’s business.
Of course, Knox wasn’t just a Devoted; he was also Anwei’s friend. But even bringing up Devoted magic felt like stepping over a line drawn between them that they had both promised not to cross.
“They can’t find you unless you use your whatever it is on purpose,” Anwei tried again. “Back in the compound, you heard the old man coming before I did. And you got out without a single guard even noticing—”
“I haven’t been using it.” Knox’s voice was choked. He shrank back against the wall. “At least, as much as I can help.”
“And the sword?” She hated even thinking about that gods-forsaken thing. “You haven’t touched it lately or—”
Anwei let out the breath trapped in her lungs. “Then we’re okay. Those soldiers have no reason to be looking for you.” She turned to face Knox when he didn’t answer. He didn’t look at her, his gaze turned to the crowd, darting from person to person as if he was searching for something she couldn’t see. He smelled of the bland noodles and broth they’d eaten before going to the trade advisor’s study, hints of smoke and meat clinging to his shirt from the night market. But underneath she could scent the salty odor of an agitated sweat.
“It’s been a year since you left them. It’s going to be okay.” She said it firmly, as if she knew it to be fact.
Knox’s eyes refocused on her, one hand coming up to touch the empty space where that cursed sword hilt would have stuck out above his shoulder if he’d been carrying it. Anwei’s heart sank even as he changed the gesture to smooth back his dark hair.
“They’ll never stop looking,” he whispered. “It is never going to be okay.”
She peered after the auroshes. Even now, out of sight, the soldiers seemed to radiate power, the force of law, the Warlord herself and everything she stood for, almost as frightening as the shapeshifters they hunted. If Roosters were in Chaol, their masters—Devoted—would likely soon follow. Anwei’s grip on Knox’s tunic tightened, the thought of Knox leaving her sharp in her chest. It was only when one of the students from across the street sent a suggestive whistle toward them that her grip loosened.
Knox was right, of course. The last dregs of triumph from a job well done funneled away as Anwei stepped out of the stairwell. She had known from the moment she found Knox lying almost dead in the street, his head shorn and his hands clutching a shapeshifter’s sword like his life depended on it, that nothing was going to be okay.
But the nothing smell she’d caught earlier? That could change everything.