Inac and I met the next morning at the Docks of the Burg. From there, the Agency’s stone tower was barely visible as it peeked over the roofs of the dockside inns and warehouses. After a quick greeting and agreement that neither of us wanted to back out, we strode toward Ulken’s headquarters fighting the flow of the crowd as thousands of Liwo filled the streets, making their way from the Residential District to the Docks. The Burg’s scrunched-together houses lined wide streets, but the carts, horses, donkeys, and foot traffic made the district seem as cramped as the Blight. Still, it was nowhere near as crowded as before the Riot decimated Liwokin’s population. I grimaced and tried not to think about that, focusing instead on staying close to Inac among the press of bodies.
But how could I ever forget it? Each time the houses obstructing our view gave way, the Agency tower seemed to have grown taller. The closer you lived to it, the greater a reminder you’d have of the tragedy every time you stepped out your front door. It may have seemed small from a distance, but when we reached the Agency’s gates in a square bordering the Gild, it was like standing at the feet of a giant. Behind us, the City Council building was a small rock the giant could kick over.
The Agency was a concrete behemoth, plain and sensible. Evenly spaced floors with uniform rows of glass embedded in a matte gray block. A stone wall extended from its base, surrounding a courtyard only accessible through a single iron gate. All twenty-seven floors of the tower were erected in a matter of days by workers conscripted by Ulken. The courtyard took just one more day—one on which the Brightdaughter had not risen high above the horizon.
I had to give it to Ulken. The man knew how to get things done.
Inac blew an impressed whistle. “Even the Sea Pot walls do not rise this high. I hope for the sake of the city it does not fall.”
“It’d take a whole lot to knock something like this over,” I said, eyes following the stark tower walls toward the heavens. “Even if someone could do it, it’d only be a few days before they finished rebuilding it.”
“Only if after this one there is stone left in the quarries.”
I chuckled, then nodded toward the entrance to the courtyard. “They’re stopping people at the gate. The only ones going in are wearing those uniforms.”
The wide gate to the courtyard buzzed with activity. Not a half-dozen breaths passed between one person entering and another leaving. Those who came from inside trailed a wisp of the thick haze that seemed to coat the grounds of the courtyard beyond. Several different uniforms were on display, in a variety of muted colors. Most wore one comprised of different shades of gray, tightly fitted with their shirt tucked in, belt buckled, and sporting no long coat like the other colors. The sheer numbers of the gray-shirts told me they must be the lowest rank, and based on their dress, they were likely expected to stay out of the way. That would have been our uniform if we hadn’t come with a gift for Ulken.
Two people wearing dark red coats entered, carrying between them some unwieldy mechanical device. Their crimson uniforms weren’t half as striking as the strange, beak-like masks they wore, making them look like flightless cardinals. Shortly after the two crimson-coats disappeared, a woman in gold-and-white rushed past the guards and sprinted into the courtyard, nearly bowling over a gray-shirt who jumped out of the way.
Another five exited the gate, none of whom wore any uniform at all. I was not surprised by the two matching mages in green and blue robes, nor the brutish man with a crooked nose, nor the thin man in a tall, funny-looking hat. Yet I stood gaping at something lumbering along behind the rest. I knew the Agency recruited from all countries within the Bright Empire, but apparently, it recruited from some outside it as well.
Monsters abroad, the mysterious note had said, but it was wrong.
They were here at home as well.
I shook my head in disbelief. “Is that…?”
Inac hummed, furrowed his brows. “A Skardwarf in the north. Perhaps your first guess was not so far from the mark.”
Ulken thinks they are still under control.
Stocky and shirtless, with skin like jagged stone, its body looked like rock sculpted into human form—albeit quite squat, with anchor-like feet and a bald, pockmarked head. The Skardwarf carried a quarterstaff with a gnarled, knotted end, roughly hewn from wood darker than any found in the north. It noticed me staring, bared its teeth, and raised its staff in my direction, but continued following the others, leaving deep footprints in the gravel path.
“I pictured them as being much smaller,” I admitted. The stories I heard always portrayed them as short, dim-witted creatures, nothing to fear. Nonsensically, they also promised we’d be safe from them, separated as we were by a vast ocean with endlessly raging winds turning waves to knives and ships to splinters. Yet, here stood a Skardwarf, enemy of the Bright Empire in my home city. I never put much credence in stories. “How’d it survive the journey across the ocean?”
Inac shrugged as the group turned the corner and disappeared. “You should ask him sometime. Now, let us enter.”
As we approached the Agency tower, a strange feeling overtook me. My unease at joining Ulken’s organization was smothered, but so too was my confidence that our plan would work. I expected to feel some nerves as two armed and helmeted gray-shirts whispered something between them, then held up their hands to halt us. Instead, I felt nothing, as if my body were moved by a mind benumbed.
I noticed a gray, hazy cloud seeping out from the courtyard, slithering across the gravel until it reached my feet. The cloud seemed to crawl up my body until I couldn’t help but breathe it in. When the musty wood-burning-in-a-chemical-fire scent hit my nose, I coughed and spat, but the acrid odor clung to my nostrils, until suddenly it shifted into something pleasant, a scent like flowers and honey.
One of the gray-shirt guards grunted. His stubbled chin stuck out like the toe of a boot, from a jaw that never ceased working, like he had a mouth full of gum. “Told you, just like I said. Gets everyone their first time. Now pay up.”
The other guard’s half-lidded eyes were topped by high brows, as if he were perpetually surprised. He grumbled and put a star into Bootjaw’s open palm.
What was this stuff? I felt some of my uneasiness return and looked to Inac, wondering if he had any idea. The mage had a distracted, puzzled look on his face, but he hadn’t gagged like I did.
“Didn’t get him,” I said, gesturing to Inac.
Both the guards’ eyes went wide. Highbrow’s expression turned to a look of pure elation. “Finally! One your way, one mine. Now’s time you pay up.”
Bootjaw hesitantly held out the same coin the other had just given him, clearly unwilling to give it back. He didn’t let go when Highbrow tried to take it, lips pursed like he was trying to come up with some greedy excuse.
I cleared my throat, annoyed at their stalling. “We’ve come to join up. I know a Finger, his name’s—”
Highbrow jerked the coin free. “New recruits, ah? All right then. Same question we ask everyone: What can you do?”
What can you do? It was the same question as always when offering my services to those in need… Until after the Riot, that is.
Ever since, the question usually came with a ‘that the Agency can’t?’ stuck on the end.
I smiled the same way I always did when trying to convince someone they’re in need of my skills. Then I recalled what Bengard said. Ulken could use a fighter at the Agency.
“I’m a hunter.” I put my hand on the hilt of my sword, drew the iron just a palm’s width. “I can handle myself in a scrape, and she’s gotten her fair taste of blood. Still, I prefer the crossbow.” I slammed my sword back into its scabbard, nodded toward Highbrow’s holstered pistol. “More reliable than a flintlock. Quieter too. Listen, I’ve been at this a lot longer than the Agency has. I figure I’m doing you a favor joining up.”
“We’ll see about that,” Bootjaw said. “And him?”
Inac looked like he hadn’t heard him. He was focused on something else. I nudged him and he snapped out of it, then focused on the guard, grinning. “And me?” he said. “What I can do?”
He held up his right hand, showed it front and back, like a magician performing a coin trick. The two guards exchanged a glance, puzzled by the display. Then Inac snapped his fingers, and a molten orb of Fire appeared a few inches in front of Bootjaw’s nose, hovering in midair. His eyes went wide, and he flinched back, but the orb stayed with him, like it was attached by an invisible rod. He froze, comprehending that he couldn’t get away.
“Enough, stop!” he pleaded, and Inac twisted his wrist. The Fire began circling around Bootjaw’s head. It went one way, then the other, before Inac swiped his hand sideways. The Archefire zipped across to circle around Highbrow’s head, much to the relief of his partner.
Inac laughed and clenched his right hand into a fist. The Fire dissipated, but the sweat and fear on the guards’ faces remained. “I am an Archemage,” Inac said, pointing out his sea blue cloak, ragged and worn as it was. “And that was not even my good hand.”
Bootjaw growled as he wiped his face dry. With angry eyes affixed to Inac, he whistled inside over his shoulder and shouted, “New recruits, Looker! One mage and one killer!”
Looker emerged from the courtyard and stopped short below the portcullis. She held a pad of paper, scribbled on it as a puff of white haze curled up and around. She wore a coat that hung down to calf length, the same style as Bengard’s, but pale blue rather than green. Did the different color signify Looker held a different position than the Finger? She glanced at me and Inac, boredom in her eyes, then looked down to add some more scribbles. “Two of you? Follow me.” She turned, paying little mind to the gray-shirts that scurried clear of her path.
We obeyed, following her through a busy courtyard blanketed with smoke. Several gray-shirts puffed on small cigars and chatted with one another; one sat partially submerged in the white cloud, acting as if it weren’t there at all. The sweet-smelling smoke dripped from their cigars’ burning ends, slowly dropping into the chaotic, hazy pool flooding the ground. Countless other gray-shirts carrying slips of paper, field supplies, weapons, and food hurried through the courtyard in all directions, disturbing the smoke in their passing and swirling it in their wake. Two stone incense pots supplied the bulk of the fumes. Near them, a man in white and gold posted a bold, black number on a lightwood signpost. It was large enough to be visible across the courtyard. ‘Twenty-four’, it read, and I wondered:
“This is your assigned Hand,” Looker said, stopping abruptly next to a group of four individuals. All of them were unusual, but none more so than the Skardwarf who stood among them. This one bore no weapon but was otherwise indistinguishable from the first Skardwarf I’d seen. It stared at me with an expressionless, stony face, and I realized I was staring back. I had never expected to see one monster from the Dark, southern hemisphere, far less two of them before the clang of the half-noon bell. I reluctantly pulled my gaze from the Skardwarf, always keeping it in my peripheral vision. Looker read off the names of the others as she pointed them out.
“Garret,” she said, pointing to an Ekoan. Traders from the country of Eko were common in Liwokin, but Ekoan rangers were rare. This one stood cross-armed and regarded me with a humorless face darkened by the shadow of his raised hood. Oak-brown braids with animal bones tied into his hair hung down past his neck, and he wore a cloak of patchwork leather, bark, and bone. It was decorated with woven leaves and dyed fur in a dozen shades of green.
“Which one?” Garret asked Looker.
“Don’t interrupt,” she said, and continued; the ranger spat into the mist. “Lorelay.” Looker pointed to a Paceeqi girl. Tall and athletic, like most from her country, she wore the crimson and gold of the Bright Empire’s capital. Her long hair matched the Empire’s gold near the ends and graded to blood-red up at the roots. She wore two long knives strapped across her chest, and a strange instrument hung from her belt.
Lorelay smiled at me and Inac. “Nice to meet—”
“Dunnax,” Looker interrupted, pointing at another Paceeqi standing next to Lorelay.
Dunnax scowled and stepped toward Looker, but Lorelay held an arm out to hold him back. While Lorelay had the slender frame of a typical Paceeqi woman, Dunnax was big even for a Paceeqi man. He topped her by a full hand’s span and carried an ornate silver glaive that was taller still.
Anyone with a weapon that big must know how to use it.
Dunnax’s impressive brawn was only outmatched by his impressive look of contempt; his face only softened when Lorelay pleadingly squeezed his arm.
Looker barely reacted to the huge man’s anger. Her eyes flicked up to regard him from beneath her brows, then she glanced her papers once more and said, “Sentyx.”
“What?” the Skardwarf asked.
“She’s not talking to you,” Garret said.
Garret grunted back and rolled his eyes. “So,” he said to Looker, “which one?”
“The killer’s yours,” Looker drawled. “The mage will be assigned elsewhere.”
I looked at Inac and we both frowned. If we got separated, neither of us would have any evidence to give to Ulken. The pendant and the note were each useless without the other. “We need to be assigned together,” I said.
Looker shrugged. “Five in a Hand,” she said, and beckoned to Inac. “Follow me.”
“Wait,” the mage said, but the impatient escort had already moved on. Inac’s shoulders slumped. “Find me tonight, my friend.” I nodded and he hurried to catch Looker.
Guess I’d have to make some new friends. I looked at the odd group before me. The collection of expressions that greeted me didn’t seem promising.
“So, you’re a killer, eh?” The ranger, Garret, spat. “Could’ve used a mage. Already got plenty of killers.”
“We already have a mage, too,” Lorelay said. “Dunnax controls the Fire. He was a—”
“I’m no mage,” Dunnax said. “The Order of Paladins teaches some practical controls. The rest are forbidden.” He frowned, as if his words tasted rotten, then grunted and picked up a bulging leather pack that was hidden below the knee-deep smoke. “All five of us are here now. We should get our orders.”
“Always straight to business with you,” Lorelay said.
“This smoke, these…people.” Dunnax narrowed his eyes at a passing trio of crimson-coats carrying a coffin overhead; their hunched backs and heavy steps told me it was full. “I’m already growing sick of it. We’ve been shuffled around this courtyard waiting for a fifth since dawn.”
“Since dawn?” Garret barked a laugh. “You poor thing. Been coming here to wait for three days now. They let us in at dawn and kick us out at half-dusk.” He threw an arm around the Skardwarf to pull him close, but only succeeded in moving himself. “Sentyx has been here even longer. You tired of waiting yet?”
“I face into the wind,” Sentyx said, his rough voice loud enough to be heard beyond the walls. Two passing gray-shirts flinched at the outburst before continuing with their duties, muttering to each other.
“By the abyss, Skardwarf, we’re right here.” Garret pushed himself away from the Skardwarf and rubbed his ear, wincing. “You face into the wind. What does that even mean?”
The Paceeqis and I stared expectantly at the Skardwarf. Sentyx said nothing.
“Aye,” Garret said. “That’s about all you’ll get out of him.”
I shook my head, scowling at the Skardwarf. What did Ulken want with these dark lovers from the South in his Agency?
“You seem awfully close with the Skardwarf, Ekoan,” Dunnax said. “Have your people forgotten their loyalty to the Bright Empire?”
“Dunnax, stop,” Lorelay warned, but the Paceeqi stepped past her and towered over the short-statured Ekoan.
Garret spat, then looked up at Dunnax from beneath his hood. He cracked his neck, animal bones jangling in his braided hair. “Loyalty? Funny thing for a disgraced Paladin to bring up.” Dunnax clenched his fists, but Garret continued. “Between us, the loyalty of ‘my people’ isn’t worth the spit on your boots.”
I put myself between Dunnax and Garret to stop them from coming to blows. “I love a good scuffle as much as anyone, but we’ve only just met. No need to be at each other’s throats.”
“He’s a long way from reaching my throat,” Dunnax said.
“Enough!” Lorelay strained as she picked up Dunnax’s pack, then shoved it into his hands. “It’s not their fault, what happened to us.”
Dunnax swung the pack onto his back, nearly clobbering Sentyx with it. “To us?” He started for the wide-open cathedral-like doors that led to the first floor of the Agency.
I sighed. I expected some initiation procedure, some training for new recruits, an explanation of duties. Instead, I’d been separated from Inac, dumped in a smoky courtyard with a group of strangers in something called a Hand.
“Well,” I said, “this isn’t going as planned.”
“I’m sorry,” Lorelay said, her face awash with guilt. “My brother’s not usually like this.”
“That’s your brother?” I asked, but now that she said it, the resemblance was uncanny. “What happened to you?”
“We’ve…had a rough year.”
“Whole city has,” I said.
“What’s your name anyway, killer?” Lorelay asked with a grin.
Garret blew a sputtering laugh. “Grim? What, did you scowl at your mother fresh from the womb?”
I smiled. “It was the orphan keeper, actually. She never wanted me to forget what a miserable boy I was.”
“Look,” Sentyx said. He stared across the courtyard to where Dunnax was being questioned by a man in white and gold.
The former Paladin pointed us out to the man, who turned and stood with his hands behind his back. Dunnax said something to the man, then threw up his hands when he was ignored. Lorelay groaned and jaunted across the courtyard. The rest of us followed.
When we all gathered near the entrance to the tower, the white-and-gold cloaked man cleared his throat. “Your presence is required at once in Logistics. Please acknowledge.”
“We’re needed in Logistics?” I asked. “Where—”
“Acknowledgment received. Thank you.” The messenger hurried off and entered the tower by a small side door.
Lorelay scoffed. “The nerve of some people…”
“It’s one tower,” Dunnax said, shifting his pack. “Hardly the palace in Vos. How hard can it be to find?”
Half-noon’s bell clanged, and we were lost.
The ascent up the Agency’s headquarters was grueling. Each flight of stairs led to a maze of hallways identical to the floor below, each with the same carpet of haze I saw in the courtyard, pouring from braziers at every corner. The dozens of gray-shirts we encountered all wore the same dull expression as they hurried past us to attend their own inscrutable business. When Lorelay asked one for directions, he told her that was the responsibility of Logistics. Apparently, putting up signs and marking each pathway was no one’s responsibility, since there were none to be seen.
Bright, faintly pulsing lights hung from pipes attached to the ceiling and lit the smoke beneath our feet with a bright, nauseating glow. The subtly pulsing lights were attached to pipes on the ceiling that emitted a ceaseless whirring sound. The high-pitched squeal was soft enough that I wondered whether I imagined it. But even things that only exist in your head are enough to drive you insane.
The sooner we were out in the field, the better. A group like ours wasn’t meant to be confined to such a labyrinth of monotony. Garret’s face, when I chanced to glimpse it under his hood, bore lips curled in disgust. His eyes darted around suspiciously, as if around every identical corner awaited some unique danger. Dunnax looked more bored than irritated, as he had been earlier, and his sister groaned regularly as each floor failed to contain our destination. Sentyx…I didn’t know how to read the Skardwarf. His face never gave any hint of emotion, and he hadn’t said a dozen words. Since entering the tower, only once had he spoken to ask me if I was okay when I coughed uncontrollably after inhaling a plume of smoke. Despite my wariness at having a Skardwarf around, it was easy to forget he was there. Perhaps it was this ever-present haze sapping my will, stealing my autonomy, making me feel like all the mindless gray-shirts looked.
Noon’s bell tolled before we stumbled across Logistics on the eighteenth floor of the Agency. Either the Brightdaughter hung low today, or we had been searching for far longer than I wanted to believe. But on the wall across the hallway from the door, the Sibling Sun’s light filtered in through an open window. I stepped over for a breath of haze-free air. Logistics could wait another moment.
From this height, the entire city sprawled out before me and the Liwo were no more than colorful dots jostling one another in the streets. Vertigo struck me as my eyes followed the curl of the city around Brightcalm Bay, then up the hill that housed the Blight on the far side of the crescent city from the Gild. On the waters, a myriad of colorful banners marked the ships that endlessly flowed to and from the Liwokin docks. Even in the pockets of scorched darkness, grand new buildings were being erected to replace those lost to the Riot’s fires.
As grand as they were, none of them matched the grandeur of the Gild. The nearby Financial District towers topped the Agency’s height, behind a wall that cordoned off the moneylenders’ district from the others. Solar fire reflected in the Gild’s gracefully curved Archemetal, dancing with the slightest motions of my head as I took in their dizzying height. Golden metal spires twisted upward into the blue sky around a core of white marble with windows full of movement. The cluster of buildings seemed an otherworldly presence in Liwokin, imposed by the Bright Empire and matching the architecture of the capital in Paceeq. Unlike the Agency, these towers seemed more an intrusion into the city than an extension of it.
Perhaps that was unfair. Paceeqi had been welcome in Liwokin since long before I was born. But they always came for a reason. First, the Empire came for our land. Now, they stay for our wealth. I wondered why my new companions crossed the seas to Lawiko.
The door hinge squealed behind me as Dunnax, ever impatient, pushed his way into Logistics, drawing me away from my birds’ eye view of the city. As I entered behind him, a woman in a bronze coat wearing circle-rimmed spectacles sat reading at her desk. A wedge-shaped plaque atop the desk read, ‘Kella, Organ of Logistics.’ Behind her, a half-dozen aisles of meticulously organized shelves receded toward the opposite side of the tower, stretching back so far there were windows at the aisles’ ends. As we entered this boxy room, with walls painted pure white and not a speck of dust to be found, Kella looked up and raised an eyebrow. This was her domain.
The book snapped shut in her hands and she rose. “Hand Sixty-Four? Ulken’s Nerve informed me of your imminent arrival,” she said, reaching under her desk. “That was a full span ago, at half-noon.” Kella pulled out an oversized, bulging envelope. Bronze string bound the envelope shut, with a silver wax seal poured and stamped on the knot.
“Sorry,” Lorelay said. “We couldn’t find—”
“Here. Your command package,” Kella said, and shoved the package toward us before marking off some papers. “Take it.” She stood and visibly composed herself, eyes shut and lips taut. Then the reprimanding began. “It isn’t like the Head to hire lag-abouts, you know. You won’t last long lazing around like this. And on your first day?”
“Lazing around? We’ve been searching—” I started, but the old woman wasn’t finished.
“Do you think I’ve no other matters to attend to? Ulken won’t tolerate messy records and no other Organ will touch Logistics. I’m the only one who knows my way ‘round these files, so keep me waiting again and you’ll serve permanently as Heels. I’ll see to it. A flick of Kella’s pen, that’s all it takes, I tell you.”
None of us spoke. Better to let her get it out of her system, I figured.
Only now, she looked at each of us like we were a bunch of dullards, crossed her arms, and shook her head. Garret snatched the parcel and she disappeared into the rows of shelves, swearing an oath to the Darkfather under her breath. We made to leave, but her stern voice hooked us from behind.
“And where do you think you’re going?”
All of us exchanged looks. Dunnax held his jaw so tight it seemed his teeth might shatter.
I spoke up, feeling vaguely like my old orphan keeper had caught me with my hand in the tithing basket. “To…open our command package and get to work.”
“Hah!” The woman poked her head from the aisle, perhaps ensuring we weren’t about to flee. She disappeared again. “Eager to leave me, are you? No different than my husband.”
Can’t imagine why.
“But I’m not through with you yet,” she said. She reappeared with an appalling stack of papers and dumped them on her desk before us. When they landed with a thump, I felt the wind forced from beneath them blow across my face. “Hope you all know how to work a pen.” She separated the papers into five stacks and placed one before each of us. “Elsewise we’re going to be here a long time, and you’ve already kept the Head waiting long enough.”
“What do you mean, kept the Head waiting?” I asked.
Kella gave an ugly cackle. “He’s upstairs, expecting you for an interview. Soon as you’re done signing your control agreements, silence contracts, and investigation waivers, you can go right up.”
“Ulken wants to see us?” Dunnax gaped at the Organ of Logistics as if she’d just told him we had a pending meeting with the Empress. “Why?”
“Do you think we Organs question the Head’s decisions?” Kella cocked her head. “I guess you lot must be special.” She cracked a grin that didn’t reach her eyes and slapped a pen down atop Dunnax’s stack. “Now, you’d best start signing!”