Chess Putnam has a lot on her plate. Mangled human corpses have started to show up on the streets of Downside, and Chess’s bosses at the Church of Real Truth have ordered her to team up with the ultra-powerful Black Squad agency to crack the grisly case.
Chess is under a binding spell that threatens death if she talks about the investigation, but the city’s most notorious crime boss—and Chess’s drug dealer—gets wind of her new assignment and insists on being kept informed. If that isn’t bad enough, a sinister street vendor appears to have information Chess needs. Only he’s not telling what he knows, or what it all has to do with the vast underground City of Eternity.
Now Chess will have to navigate killer wraiths, First Elders, and a lot of seriously nasty magic—all while coping with some not-so-small issues of her own. And the only man Chess can trust to help her through it all has every reason to want her dead.
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Not all of your duties will be pleasant. But that is the sacrifice you make, for as a Church employee you must always remember that you are privileged above all others.
—The Example Is You, the guidebook for Church employees
The guillotine waited for them, its blackened wood dark and threatening against the naked cement walls of the Execution Room.
Chess limped past it, trying not to look. Trying not to remember that she deserved to kneel before it, to place her neck on the age-smoothed rest and wait for the blade to fall. She’d killed a psychopomp. Hell, she’d killed people.
Only the death of the hawk meant automatic execution.
But nobody knew about that. At least, nobody with the authority to order her death knew about that. She was safe for the moment.
Too bad she didn’t feel safe. Didn’t feel the way she should have felt. The dull ache in her thigh with every step she took in her low-heeled Church pumps reminded her of the almost healed gunshot wound; her limp reminded everyone else, drew attention to her at a time when she wanted it even less than usual.
Elder Griffin’s hand was warm at her elbow. “You may sit while the sentence is read and carried out, Cesaria.”
“Oh, no, really, I’m—”
He shook his head, his eyes serious. What was that about? Granted, an execution wasn’t exactly a party-it-up event; very few Church events were. But Elder Griffin looked even more solemn than usual, more troubled.
He didn’t know, did he? Had Oliver Fletcher told him about the psychopomp, about what she’d done? If that bast—No. No, she was being stupid and paranoid. Oliver wouldn’t have told him. When would he have? As far as she knew, the two men had only shared one conversation since that night, the night she’d killed the psychopomp, the night Terrible had been—
Her breath rasped in her chest. Right. This wasn’t the time, or the place. This was an execution, and she had testimony to give, and she needed to calm the fuck down and give it.
So she sat on the hard, straight-backed wooden chair, breathing the disinfectant stink heavy in the room, and watched the others file in after her. Elder Murray, the rings painted around his eyes as black as his hair, almost disappearing against the rich darkness of his skin. Dana Wright, the other Debunker who’d been at the bust at Madame Lupita’s, her light hair curling around her face.
For Lupita herself, no one came. Any who might have cared about her, who might have wanted to be there for her in the last moments of her physical life, had either already been executed themselves or were locked in their cells in the prison building.
Last—last before the condemned woman herself—came the executioner, his face obscured by a heavy black hood. On his open right palm rested a dog’s skull—his psychopomp, ready to take Madame Lupita down to the spirit prisons. Clenched in his left fist was a chain, and at the end of that chain was Madame Lupita, her legs and wrists shackled together with iron bands.
The door thunked shut behind them, the lock popped; it would not open for half an hour. Time enough for the execution to take place and the spirit to be taken to the City of Eternity. The timelocks had been instituted in the early days of the Church, when a series of mishaps had led to a ghost opening the door and escaping. Like everything the Church did, the timelocks made sense, but Chess couldn’t help the tiny thrill of panic that ran up her spine. Trapped. Something she never wanted to be.
The executioner fastened the chain-end he held to the guillotine and began setting up the skull at the base of the permanent altar in the corner. Smoke poured from his censer and overpowered the scent of bleach and ammonia; the thick, acrid odor of melidia to send Lupita’s soul to the spirit prisons, ajenjible and asafetida, burning yew chips to sting Chess’s nose. The energy in the room changed, power slithering up her legs and lifting the hair on the back of her neck, that little rush that always made her want to smile.
She didn’t, though. Not today. Instead she pressed her teeth together and looked at the condemned woman.
Lupita had changed since Chess saw her last, in that miserable, hot little basement that stank of terror and burned herbs and poison. Her big body seemed to have shrunk. Instead of the ridiculous silver turban Chess remembered, Lupita wore only her own close-shorn hair; instead of the silly sideshow caftan, her bulk was hidden beneath the plain black robe of those sentenced to die.
But her eyes had not changed. They searched the little crowd, found Chess, and glared, hatred burning from their depths so hot that Chess almost felt it sear her skin.
She forced herself not to look away. That woman had almost killed her, slipping poison into her drink; had almost killed a roomful of innocent people, summoning a rampaging, violent ghost. Fuck her. She was going to die, and Chess was going to watch.
Something slithered behind Lupita’s eyes.
Chess’s breath froze in her chest. Had she seen that? That flash of silver? That flash, which meant Lupita was Hosting a spirit in her body?
Her eyes widened; she stared at Lupita now, focusing. Waiting. It shouldn’t be possible. Lupita hadn’t been Hosting when she was arrested—they would have caught that immediately when she was brought in—and there was no way in hell she would have been able to pick up and bond with a spirit in the Church prisons. It simply wasn’t possible.
The flash didn’t reappear. No. She was imagining things. All the stress, the tension of her personal life—what there was of it—and the overbearing sympathy of the Elders and the other Debunkers, crushing her beneath their concern for her leg and their good intentions. Add to that a few extra Cepts and a Panda, and half a Nip to keep her awake … No wonder she was seeing things. What was next, pink elephants?
Elder Griffin stood before the guillotine, cleared his throat.
“Irene Lowe, also known as Madame Lupita, thou hast been found guilty by the Church of the crime of summoning spirits to earth. Further, thou hast been found guilty of the attempted murder of Church Debunker Cesaria Putnam. Cesaria, is this woman responsible for those crimes?”
Chess stood up, despite the protests of her right thigh and Elder Griffin’s slight frown. “Yes, Elder.”
“Thou testifiest this based on what?”
“I saw this woman commit those crimes, Elder.”
“And thou swearest thy word to be Fact, and Truth?”
“Yes, Elder. I do.”
Elder Griffin gave her a curt nod, turned next to Dana Wright while Chess sank back onto her chair. A woman was about to die based on her word. When her word—the word of a junkie and a liar, the word of someone who’d betrayed her only real friend in the world—wasn’t worth shit.
He was never going to speak to her again. She’d given up calling the week before. She’d given up hoping she might see him out at Trickster’s or Chuck’s, given up hanging around the Market in the cold, waiting to see if he turned up. He was still out there, of course. People had seen him.
People who weren’t her. She’d never known anyone could avoid another person so thoroughly. It was like he could sense her coming.
Shifting movement in the standing crowd drew her attention back to the proceedings. The execution itself was about to take place.
The room thrummed with power now, beating like a heart around them, steady and slow and thick. No need for a circle; the room itself was a circle, a fortress with iron sandwiched into the cement walls.
Elder Griffin started pounding the drum, letting his hand stay in the air for so long between beats that Chess felt herself waiting, breathless, unable to move or allow her lungs to fill until the next heavy thump. The room’s magic slid into her, finding those empty spaces and filling them, making her something more than she was. It felt good. So good she wanted to close her eyes and give herself to it completely, to forget everything and everyone and do nothing but exist in the energy.
She couldn’t, of course. She knew she couldn’t. So instead she watched as the executioner’s psychopomp formed, the dog growing out of the skull, flowing like a river from a mountain peak to become legs, a tail, hair sprouting glossy and black over the bare skin and bones.
The drum beat faster. Drums … there had been drums at Lupita’s séance that night, played by a duo of speed-freaks with eyes like ball bearings. Now the drums again, keeping monotonous, dragging time under Elder Murray’s voice.
“Irene Lowe, thou art found guilty and sentenced to die by a tribunal of Church Elders, and this sentence shall now be carried out. If thou hast any last words to speak, speak them now.”
Lupita shook her head, staring at the floor. Chess reached out with her own power, trying to get some sense of something from the woman. Some fear, some anger. Anything. Lupita was too quiet. Too calm. This didn’t feel right.