Courtney Schafer's fantasy debut, The Whitefire Crossing (Canada, USA, Europe), was another quality offering from the folks at Night Shade Books. And thanks to the author's generosity, here's an exclusive excerpt from the second volume, The Tainted City (Canada, USA, Europe).
Here's the blurb:
Dev is a desperate man. After narrowly surviving a smuggling job gone wrong, he’s now a prisoner of the Alathian Council, held hostage to ensure his friend Kiran — former apprentice to one of the most ruthless mages alive — does their bidding.
But Kiran isn’t Dev’s only concern. Back in his home city of Ninavel, the child he once swore to protect faces a terrible fate if he can’t reach her in time, and the days are fast slipping away. So when the Council offers Dev freedom in exchange for his and Kiran’s assistance in a clandestine mission to Ninavel, he can’t refuse, no matter how much he distrusts their motives.
Once in Ninavel the mission proves more treacherous than even Dev could have imagined. Betrayed by allies, forced to aid their enemies, he and Kiran must confront the darkest truths of their pasts if they hope to save those they love and survive their return to the Tainted City.
I hammered on a metal door painted with brightly colored snakes twining around a pair of crossed ice axes. Even after the long walk from the embassy into the depths of Acaltar district, fury still burned like magefire in my veins. I kept seeing Kiran’s despairing eyes, hearing the agonized terror in his shriek while caught in his nightmare back in Tamanath. Was he screaming like that now?
“Samis, you in there? Open the damn door!” I needed to find Cara, near as bad as I needed breath. Samis was a metalworker by trade, who crafted pitons, ice axes, boot spikes, and other specialized gear for mountain travel. He rented out spare rooms on the cheap to outriders in between convoy jobs. Cara had often bunked with him during her brief stays in the city, and his back courtyard was something of an informal gathering spot. Even if Cara wasn’t here, Samis might know where she was.
I pounded harder and scowled at a serpent painted in particularly eye-straining shades of orange and green. Samis fancied himself skilled with paint as well as metal, and all suggestions to the contrary bounced right off him. I’d never known what Cara saw in the man. Yeah, he was a genius with iron, but I found his scatterbrained self-absorption annoying beyond belief.
After what felt an eternity, the bronze wards on the plaque nailed to the doorframe glimmered violet. Samis swung the door open, bleary-eyed and wearing only a rumpled pair of pants that threatened to slip off his narrow hips.
“What the fuck’s all this racket?” he demanded.
All right, so I did know what Cara saw in him. He was tall like her, with muscles strong as any outrider’s from pounding out pitons on his forge, and he had a face handsome enough for a jenny-boy. His coarse dark hair was tied up in a series of knots spiked with charms, one free-hanging lock dyed the color of honey. I tried not to glare.
“Samis, is Cara here? I’ve news she needs to hear.”
Samis squinted at me. “Dev. Huh. Thought you always told anybody who’d listen that you’d rather be tied to a fire ant mound than set foot in Ninavel in midsummer. Yeah, Cara’s bunking here – you want to find her, she’s in back.”
Bunking here…just in the house, or in his bed, like she’d done in the past? Damn it, so what if she was? We’d made no promises of partnership. I started forward. Samis barred me with an arm across the open doorway.
“Next time, don’t wake me ‘til a civilized hour, or I’ll double the price for your next set of pitons. You outriders cavort about at all hours, but I’m an artist. I need sleep, or the vision doesn’t come.”
“Sorry,” I muttered, mastering the urge to throttle him. He sniffed in satisfaction and dropped his arm. I brushed past and hurried through darkened rooms piled with metalworking tools and mountain gear. The house’s back door stood open, sunlight leaking in through a beaded hanging made of quartz chips strung on hemp strands. I ducked through, and stopped.
Half the courtyard was taken up by a web of ropes knotted to pitons jutting from cracks in the walls. Cara balanced barefoot along one swaying hemp line. She wore threadbare trousers hacked off at the knees and a long sleeveless overshirt belted with a green sash. The smooth, strong muscles of her calves flexed, her hips shifting with easy grace as the rope moved. She’d pinned her long blonde braid up on her head so it wouldn’t affect her balance. A fierce grin split her tawny face, her pale eyes fixed on a wiry, balding male outrider who edged toward her along a second strand of the web. High above, a tarp stitched out of gossamer-thin prayer banners filtered the harsh summer sun into a hazy golden glow.
It wasn’t just the sight of Cara, lean and lovely as a sandcat, that closed my throat so tight I couldn’t speak. It was the memory of all the winter days I’d spent in this very courtyard, challenging friends to crazy feats of balance, laughing and planning future climbs, utterly free of the fear and anger that weighed my heart now.
A female voice called, “Twenty kenets says you can knock Vanik off before he touches a single piton, Cara!” I recognized the two other outriders who lay sprawled on their elbows beside a stack of scrap iron. Gevia, with skin dark as night and her beaded braids bound into a single thick tail; and Ikkio, who was Korassian-born and deceptively thin, his raven-black hair hanging past narrow shoulders that were pure corded muscle.
Cara balanced on one foot and stretched a leg out to kick Vanik’s strand of rope. He broke at the waist, arms windmilling, but arched backward in an improbable curve and kept his balance. Gevia hissed, while Ikkio whistled in approval.
I finally managed to summon my voice. “Cara.”
Cara twisted so fast she lost her balance. She leaped down to the flagstones, her blue eyes gone wide. “Dev?”
She sprinted across the courtyard and pulled me straight into a kiss whose passion and force left me feeling a hell of a lot better about Samis. Ah gods, the press of her slim, muscled body against mine, the spiced-honey scent of her hair…I held her tight with my throat choked all over again. At the mines, I’d dreamed of this reunion. But not like this, not with Kiran sacrificed to achieve it.
“Khalmet’s hand,” Vanik said, still swaying on his rope. He and the others were staring at us with their jaws hanging open. “Thought you had a rule, Cara. No outriders or convoy folk in your bed.” He sounded more than a little disgruntled.
“Didn’t you hear?” Gevia’s grin held an edge. She and Cara had been close ever since their apprentice days, but she’d never much liked me. “Dev’s no outrider, not anymore. Got blacklisted for life. Though, damn…looks a fair trade, doesn’t it? Cara, if I ditch an avalanche-struck convoy before they can even dig out, will you tumble me?”
I’d abandoned that convoy for Melly’s sake, and in doing so, saved Kiran from Ruslan. Yet even now, the reminder of the cost of my choice sliced deep. Insults crowded my tongue, but Cara spoke first, cheerfully mocking.
“Not likely, Gevia. Didn’t you bail off the east face of Vanadys Peak because you got too tired to hammer pitons? I like my lovers with a little more stamina.”
Gevia slapped a hand to her heart and groaned in theatrical anguish, as Ikkio and Vanik snickered. Cara dragged me back through the quartz-chip hanging into the cool semi-darkness of the house.
“Ignore her,” she said, and kissed me again, deep and slow. “I can’t believe you’re really here. I should’ve known you’d get yourself free.”
The mix of exultation and relief in her words twisted my gut. “I didn’t,” I admitted. “The Alathians brought us to Ninavel.”
“Us?” Cara peered at me. “You mean, Kiran too? But…I thought he couldn’t return, not with Ruslan…”
Gods only know what showed on my face. She sucked in a breath, her grip on my arms tightening. “Dev. What’s happened?”
“It’s that fucking Marten,” I snarled. “Didn’t I tell you he had a viper’s soul – ” I checked, looking from the open door to the darkened hall. Cara, I trusted; Samis and the rest were another story. “I’ll tell you the lot, but not here. I know a spot nearby that’s safe to talk, but you’ll want some boots to climb in.” This time of morning, in full sun the city walls would already be hot enough to blister unprotected skin.
Cara glanced down at her bare feet. “Yeah, give me a minute.” She retreated down the shadowed hall. Voices drifted back. Samis’s started off sharp, then faded into plaintive grumbling. Cara reappeared wearing a longer pair of pale cotton trousers, a thin, long-sleeved shirt, and her leather outrider boots, firmly laced.
She followed me out Samis’s door and down the narrow street past warded doors and shuttered windows. Both of us stuck to the shadows beneath balconies where we could to avoid the glare of the sun. Sweat soaked my shirt and shone on Cara’s brow. The street was empty of all but little gold-speckled whiptail lizards splayed unblinking on the pavestones. The emptiness was deceptive. As we passed the mouths of alleys I heard the occasional rustle of movement from behind makeshift shelters built of tile fragments and tattered cloth. Streetsiders too poor to pay for both water rations and living quarters wouldn’t venture out in midday heat, but they’d listen eagerly enough to any conversations in hopes of catching some scrap of information worth a coin or two from the local ganglord’s shadow men.
I ducked around the corner of a charmseller’s shop into a slit of an alley, so deep and narrow the sun didn’t penetrate. The heat remained smothering in intensity, but the walls wouldn’t burn our fingers off when we climbed. Ten stories above, one wall ended in a crumbling line of stone silhouetted against a sky seared white by the sun. This area of Acaltar district had sustained some serious damage in the mage war twenty years back, and unlike similar spots highside, nobody’d ever bothered to repair it.
“Up here,” I told Cara, and scrambled up the wall. Enough cracks marred the stone the climb was easy as breathing. Beyond the walltop, a sea of blinding white rooftops rose toward the thin spires of Kulori district. Overhead, the stone supports of a bridge that had once spanned the gap up to the lower terraces of Kulori’s towers arched to end in mid-air. The underside of one support had a dark gap where stone blocks were missing. I pulled myself into the gap and squeezed up through a crevice in the floor of an open-air cupola that’d been the province of the bridge’s tollkeeper. Broken mosaic tiles lay scattered over the cupola’s floor, the waist-high walls slimed by the droppings of rock swallows, but the roof was intact, providing blessed shade.
Cara grunted up through the hole in the floor; her height made the crevice more awkward than it’d been for me. She mopped sweat from her face with a sleeve and took in the excellent view the cupola afforded of Kulori’s towers. “Let me guess. This is one of your haunts from your Tainted days.”
“Yeah.” I’d spent many a night here with my Tainter crew, taking turns watching the highside dwelling Red Dal wanted us to hit, playing skipstone with colored bits of glass or making racecourses for roaches to pass the time. Until our minder gave the signal, and we’d swoop like bats through the cool night air up to Kulori, ready to pit ourselves against highsider wards. I kicked aside a broken tile with more force than necessary.
Cara dropped to sit cross-legged against a wall. “All right, Dev. Nobody but the damn swallows can hear us now. What’s going on?”
I slid down the wall next to her and drew my knees up to my chest, gripping them as if I could brace myself against the tale I had to share.