OF SHADOW & SEA
Right now, you’re reading the first book in The Elder Empire series.
But it’s not the only first book.
Of Shadow and Sea was written in parallel to Of Sea and Shadow,
which takes place at the same time from a different perspective.
You can begin with either book, and you will find that they each tell a complete story. Upon finishing Of Shadow and Sea, you will be fully prepared for its sequel, Of Darkness and Dawn.
But I wrote these first two books together, and their stories intertwine in a way that I think you’ll enjoy. I invite you, when you’re through with this book, to check out Of Sea and Shadow.
Welcome to the Elder Empire.
Fifteen Years Ago
When they had to kill a grown man, the children worked in pairs.
The Bait, usually a girl, would lure the target in by faking some sort of crisis and begging for help. When the target isolated himself, the Knife would drive their blade home.
By mutual agreement, Mari was always the Bait. She had long, curly hair and big eyes that looked like she was always ready to cry. Sometimes adults would stop her on the street and ask her what was wrong, even when she wasn’t trying to lure anybody.
Shera was the Knife.
The two of them dressed poor, but not too poor. They couldn’t look like homeless beggars, or the target would never stop. Maxwell had provided a faded dress and cheap blue ribbon for Mari, and a boy’s pants, shirt, and cap for Shera. No shoes.
Some of Maxwell’s older children complained about how they hated waiting; the long, boring stretch of hours between the time you set up your ambush and the time the target wandered through. Sometimes the target would never show, and you wasted your whole afternoon.
Not Shera. This was her favorite part.
As Mari sat on one side of the street with her chin in her hands, waiting for the target to pass by, Shera leaned against the wall of an alley, eating chunks of meat from a stolen skewer. The noise of the Capital blurred into a soothing lullaby, and she found herself drifting off as she watched the people pass her alleyway: a tourist couple carrying their luggage; a shirtless Izyrian hunter with a musket over one shoulder and a rabbit in his hand; an alchemist with her mask hanging down around her neck, biting her lip and scribbling on a clipboard.
Shera could watch the crowds all day. You saw all kinds of people in the Empire’s Capital.
The familiar sights and the droning music of the city lulled her to sleep, tugging her eyelids down. She curled up against the alley wall, hugging the skewer to prevent its one remaining piece of meat from falling to the ground.
She so rarely got the chance for a nap. And now they could be here for hours…
Shera opened her eyes again at the sound of Mari’s voice. “Please, I don’t know what’s wrong with her,” the girl choked out, through her sniffles. “She’s fallen asleep and won’t wake up!”
Why can’t she let it go? Last time, Mari had brought the target around the corner and found Shera fast asleep, knife still clutched in her hand. That had required some fast talking—and some fast work with a blade.
The sun had all but set while Shera napped, leaving her blanketed in the shadows of the alley. Perfect. The target wouldn’t be suspicious when he failed to see her.
Shera rolled up to a crouch, hiding behind a crate of empty bottles. She tore the last piece of meat—now cold—from the skewer and tossed the empty stick away. Still chewing, she pulled the knife from the back of her pants.
“I am no physician, girl,” Kamba Nomen said, his voice shrill and precise. “I can promise nothing for your sister.”
Maxwell made sure that his gang of children knew their targets better than they knew their own reflections. Before Shera could see Kamba, she knew him: a short, dark-skinned man with a limp, walking with the aid of a cane. He was a Reader, but not the sort who cleansed battlefields of lingering resentment and invested scythes so that they cut wheat more efficiently.
“He’s a different breed of Elder-spawned filth,” Maxwell had assured them. “He lays curses for hire, and as the whim strikes him. A woman sold him a bad piece of fruit, and within the day her cart collapsed. Sent her to the physicians with two broken legs and a cut neck. Last week, a neighbor of his burned up in an unexplained fire. The Empire has no use for this man, children. He deserves his fate.”
The silver-capped tip of Kamba’s cane appeared around the edge of Shera’s crate, and she tensed her grip on the knife. He wasn’t supposed to see her before she struck. She was going to have to fight.
Ice grew in her heart, cold spreading inside her like frost on a winter field. If she had to fight Kamba, so what? Either he would die, or she would. Her hand steadied on the knife, and her body loosened.
But Mari hastily ran up and grabbed Kamba’s other hand, directing him to the other wall of the alley.
“Not there! Over here.”
Kamba leaned over, looking into the shadows where Shera and Mari had placed another bundle of clothes. In the darkness of the alley, it should look enough like a little girl crouched under a blanket.
The Reader nudged the bundle with his cane. “This doesn’t look like—” he began, but he never got to finish the sentence.
The Bait had done her job. Now it was time for the Knife.
Shera leaped, kicking off the nearby crate and latching onto Kamba’s back like a monkey.
Maxwell had warned them about the dangers of confronting a Reader. “His jacket might be invested. It could turn your knife, so don’t risk it.” Shera didn’t. She stabbed him in the throat, where his jacket couldn’t cover. Blood sprayed onto the alley wall and trickled over her fingers.
She dropped back to the ground as Kamba staggered around, flailing his arms. One of his spasms jerked his cane back, catching Mari on the shin.
Mari muffled a shout and fell backwards as Kamba finally quieted, twitching and bleeding on the alley stones. Shera quickly dragged him behind the crate—no one on the street would look twice at a suspicious stain on an alley wall, but even the Capital’s indifferent citizens might come investigate a body in a rich man’s jacket and pants.
Then she walked over and knelt, examining Mari’s leg. “Is it cracked, do you think?”
“It hurts,” Mari said, real tears welling up in her eyes. “And he almost found out. If you had taken one more second...” She shuddered. “I’m still shaking. Aren’t you?”
Shera wiped her knife off on the dead man’s coat and stuck it back down the waistband of her pants. “Shaking? It’s not cold.”
Mari sniffled, wiping tears from her eyes. “Not from the cold. Weren’t you scared?”
Shera glanced around the alley, in case she’d missed the sight of an Imperial Guard or some monstrous Elderspawn. Something to be scared of. Surely Mari couldn’t have meant she was frightened of Kamba. The man had walked into an alley, and they’d stabbed him. Where was the threat?
Through her tears, Mari let out a long-suffering sigh. “Sometimes I want to be more like you. Other times, I think you’d get yourself killed in a week without me to take care of you.”
This spoken by a girl who might have been ten years old. Shera wasn’t sure about her own age, but she knew Mari couldn’t be that much older. But for some reason, the other girl liked to think of herself as the mother.
Shera looped an arm around Mari’s shoulder, helping her to her feet. “Who’s taking care of who?”
Together, the pair made their way back to Maxwell’s safe house, leaving a corpse behind them.
The safe house for Maxwell and his brood of adopted children rested underneath an actual house, a residence across from Gladstone Imperial Park that his family had owned for generations. The two stories above street level were furnished the way a single man living alone might keep them: dishes piled up on the table; a whiskey cabinet perpetually open; only two chairs in the sitting room.
But if you pushed the piano aside and rolled up a cheap Vandenyan rug, you found a trap door.
The three floors beneath formed the home where Shera and the others spent most of their time. Now that Mari and Shera had arrived, with Shera helping Mari down the ladder, they found the safe house in a state of panic.
A girl ran up to Shera, hauling a pillowcase stuffed with odds and ends. “There you are! Maxwell says he won’t leave without you.”
Shera exchanged confused glances with Mari. “Where is he going?”
The girl almost dropped her pillowcase in her excitement. “You haven’t heard? Oh, that’s right, you’ve been away. Well, Benji and Keina didn’t report in at sunset. When Maxwell went to look for them, he found them missing. So he checked the traps in the upstairs house, and they’ve all been disarmed!”
Shera still felt like she was looking at a puzzle with half the pieces gone. “So...Benji disarmed the traps and ran away?”
A few children ran every few months. Sometimes Maxwell brought them back and dealt with them himself, as examples. Other times, he came back empty-handed. He called the losses, “acceptable costs of doing business.”
“You don’t get it?” the girl said. “We’re under attack! Somebody found us! They might be here right now!”
She seemed more excited than terrified, hurrying down the hall with her pillowcase over her shoulder.
This time, Shera didn’t need to look at Mari’s face to know what she was thinking. They hurried downstairs together, Shera helping the hobbling Mari along.
As they shuffled down the hall, Shera heard a clatter and glanced back over her shoulder. There was no one else in the hallway. Only a fallen pillowcase, spilling its treasures all over the ground.
Of the girl, there was no sign.
The safe house was simple, and simply decorated. White walls, bare stone floor, and functional rooms with the bare minimum of cheap wooden furniture. The children slept in beds packed one against the other, sharing straw-stuffed pillows and scratchy woolen blankets.
Shera considered it the most comfortable home she’d ever had. With her real mother, she’d be lucky to have a single blanket in a filthy alley.
The pair hurried through the safe house, passing a steady stream of boys and girls bustling around and clutching their meager belongings. After Mari asked directions three times, they finally found their way to Maxwell: waiting for them in the discipline room.
The discipline room was lined with metal cages, where Maxwell’s unruly students found themselves locked for days at a time.
He’d given up using that punishment on Shera after the first time, when she’d simply curled into a ball and slept from sunrise to sunrise.
Maxwell himself stood at the far end of the room, his sleeves rolled up, carrying a cage away from the brick wall. When he heard them enter, he staggered a few steps to the right, dropping the cage in a clatter of iron.
Some students saw Maxwell as their father and called him such, but he never insisted. Personally, Shera had never seen him as family at all.
He always wore black pants and a black shirt, with a white rose tucked into his shirt pocket above the heart. Some of the older girls giggled about how handsome he looked, with his curly brown hair down to his shoulders and his compact, muscular figure. Again, Shera found it difficult to think of him in that way.
He was just Maxwell.
When he turned and saw Shera, he gave a relieved sigh. “Shera. At last. I was worried that they would...never mind. Did you see anyone in the upstairs house?”
Mari moved away from Shera’ support, stepping gingerly on her good leg, and answered. “We saw no evidence of any intruders, Maxwell.”
“Of course you didn’t see anyone. They’re too good for that.” He rubbed his hands together, invigorated, but his face still looked drawn and tight. It was the same look he wore in the first day or two after a child ran away and he couldn’t bring them back.
He raised his boot and kicked another cage out of the way, and Shera finally saw what he was doing. A low metal grate rested in the middle of the wall, leading into a dark tunnel.
Maxwell nodded to the tunnel. “The other children are trying other means of escape, but this is where we’ll be going. Rebel soldiers used this to move from base to base in the Kings’ War.”
“Should we gather anything from the house, sir?” Mari asked.
He didn’t look at her. “Shera, what have I taught you about weapons?”
“A warrior is never unarmed,” she said.
Maxwell gave her a proud smile. “Good girl. The others know where to rendezvous, but I didn’t want to risk you getting lost. Come on, now.”
Mari hesitantly raised her hand, as though asking for permission to speak. “What about—”
“Yes, yes, both of you. Into the tunnel, quickly. If they’re who I think they are, we don’t have much time.”
Shera grabbed Mari by the shoulder again and began helping her toward the tunnel, but Maxwell held a hand out. His eyes sharpened. “What happened to Mari’s leg?”
He directed the question at Shera, but she waited for Mari to answer. “I...the target hit me with his cane, Maxwell. It isn’t bad.”
Their leader shook his head. “Mari. There’s too much at stake this time, girl. The Empire is sick, and we are the cure. But if these hirelings have their way, we’ll never get to spread our good work.”
He turned from Mari, picking up a crowbar to pry away at the grate. “Ordinarily I’d wait for you to recover, but we don’t have time for that now. You’ll slow us down.”
Shera had completed the assassination of Kamba Nomen without a single instant of fear, but now a worm of doubt and uncertainty crawled its way into her heart. Instinctively, she stepped between Mari and Maxwell.
“Shera,” Maxwell said, without turning around. “When do we kill?”
“When the target has earned his fate. When the target serves no useful function.”
He gestured in Mari’s direction with his crowbar. “Today, Mari serves no useful function. Quite the opposite. Finish your work.”
Mari turned to Shera, eyes wide, tears streaming silently down her cheeks. “Shera...”
Shera looked between Mari and Maxwell. In the back of her waistband, the knife felt freezing cold.
She didn’t want to kill Mari. Why not? Because she’s my friend? That doesn’t matter. If she’s useless, she’s useless.
But Mari was the one to shake Shera awake when she overslept. Mari made fun of Shera for being lazy. Mari told her when she should be afraid, even if Shera didn’t feel it.
“She does serve a useful function,” Shera said. Mari stared at her, hopeful.
Maxwell turned fully around, gripping his crowbar like a sword. “Then what is it?”
“I can’t...I don’t have the words for it. But I have a use for her.”
Their leader blew out a breath, running his empty hand through his hair. “Children. I sometimes forget that they’re children.” Gently, he placed the crowbar on top of a nearby cage.
Then he pulled out a pistol and shot Mari in the chest.
Gun smoke filled the tiny room, the shot echoing like a collapsed wall. Shera couldn’t take her eyes from Mari, who staggered backwards in her red-stained dress, clutching at a nearby cage for support. She finally collapsed, her mouth working for a few more seconds before she stopped trying to suck in a breath that wouldn’t come.
Maxwell tossed his pistol aside. “What have I taught you about mercy, Shera?”
There is no such thing as mercy. There is only hesitation.
But this time, she didn’t say it. She remained silent, thinking about Mari.
Her friend was dead. Shera confronted death every day, but she rarely thought about it. Death wasn’t personal…except, this time, it was. It hurt like a knife to the chest, and she couldn’t quite understand why.
And with the pain, her thoughts grew cold.
Maxwell had grabbed his crowbar again and resumed his work on the grate, prying it away from the brick wall. “No one else has learned my lessons better than you have, Shera. The Consultants think they have the best, but they won’t be able to compete with you.”
Shera stood behind Maxwell, her knife in her hand, thinking of Mari.
She cocked her head, aware of something she had never thought of before. Maxwell engineered the deaths of dozens, perhaps hundreds of people. He deserved his fate. And as for his ‘useful function’...
“I have no use for you,” she said.
He was starting to turn around when she drew her knife across his calves. He fell to his knees, screaming, and she plunged her knife into his back. Five times, to be safe.
The other children soon arrived, drawn by the sound of the gunshot. From the doorway, they each saw Maxwell, facedown in a pool of his own blood, as well as Mari’s body slumped against a cage.
Some of them cried. Others screamed, and still others remained silent. A few looked as though they’d finally been released from prison.
But when they saw Shera, sitting on top of a cage with a bloody knife, none of them entered the room.
Kerian stood in the hallway of Maxwell’s safe house, watching her fellow Consultants work. Or rather, watching the results of their work.
It was rare, even for her, to catch a Consultant in action.
A twelve-year-old boy raised a shaking pistol with both hands, pointing the barrel at Kerian—the only target in sight. She didn’t bother moving.
A black shape passed across the boy and he was gone, pistol and all. A nine-year-old girl, who happened to be turning the corner at that exact moment, gasped and dropped a bundle of clothing. Before she could run off, a pair of black-clad arms reached down from the ceiling and pulled her up through the trap door.
Idly, Kerian fiddled with the leather satchel that hung from her shoulder. She had prepared for any number of contingencies, and thus far none of them had materialized. She couldn’t help the boredom. Gardener missions were many things, but they were rarely boring; even if you had to lie perfectly still under a flowing river for six hours, breathing through a reed, assassinations had a thrill all their own.
She was the only Gardener on this mission, for which she was glad. Certain instincts could be hard to suppress, and they wanted these children back alive. The clients had specified as much, for understandable reasons.
The clients were the parents of these missing children. And they had finally offered such an obscene sum of money that the Consultant’s Guild could not turn them away.
As glad as she was that she didn’t have to rein in a team of Gardeners, she could never get used to working with Shepherds and Masons. The Masons weren’t suited for real stealth work: they relied on their disguises to see them through, and they couldn’t see that disguises served them nothing. A Mason hustled into view now, dressed as an old lady in an apron, chasing a girl down the hallway.
It doesn’t matter if you look harmless. If you’re a stranger, these children will run. It seemed, sometimes, that Masons left common sense on the island with their Consultant blacks.
Shepherds were a little better; at least they wore black. They were so skittish. Kerian had personally witnessed a Shepherd running from an eight-year-old boy with an undersized saber. Shepherds had been trained for so many years to minimize risk that they didn’t recognize a harmless target when they saw one.
These children, on the other hand, had been raised like Gardeners. Or as close as Maxwell could come to it, having never seen the Garden himself.
Kerian strolled down the hall, searching through her satchel with one hand as she walked. An extra pair of knives...useless. Climbing gear...unnecessary. An invested hammer in case we have to break through a wall...well, that one might come in handy.
She still hoped someone would attack her. A mission didn’t feel right without the risk of danger.
When she heard the pistol-shot ring out through the safe house, Kerian’s spirits soared. Here, at last, something was happening.
She made her way downstairs, catching snatches of the reports from Shepherds who had--of course—already checked out the noise and returned.
“...shot one of the girls. Don’t know...”
“...looked like he was trying to escape.”
A crowd of children clustered around the door to the room full of cages. They were facing the same way, so it was easy for Kerian to slip around them unnoticed and into the room herself.
The scene inside looked like the aftermath of a sloppy Gardener’s botched mission.
Cages had been hauled away from one wall, revealing a metal grate that was halfway peeled away from the brick. The tunnel beyond it was Maxwell’s “secret” escape route, an underground road dating back to the Kings’ War. Five Consultants waited in hiding at the other end, prepared to take Maxwell when he emerged.
But he hadn’t made it that far. Maxwell lay facedown as though drowning in blood, five or six stab wounds in the back of his shirt. His killer had been shorter—they’d slashed him across the legs to bring him down so they could reach. One of his children, then, had turned on their master.
Perhaps this girl over here, the curly-haired one with the bullet in her chest. Tears had worn tracks down her cheeks and she still had a blue ribbon in her hair.
Not her, then. She’d died surprised and unarmed.
Kerian glanced around the room before she spotted the killer: a girl, probably less than ten years old, with her black hair spilling out of a cheap cap. She was curled up on a cage, a bloody knife still gripped in her hand.
The Gardener snapped her fingers twice and two Shepherds appeared, black-clad and black-masked, bowing their heads and awaiting her order.
“Finish collecting the rest of the children,” she ordered. “Then bring them to the chapter house for the clients.”
She nodded to the sleeping killer. “I’ll bring this one myself.”
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