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Excerpt: The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Her world was shattered by the Empire of Masks. For the power to shatter the Masquerade, she betrayed everyone she loved.

The traitor Baru Cormorant is now the cryptarch Agonist—a secret lord of the empire she’s vowed to destroy.

Hunted by a mutinous admiral, haunted by the wound which has split her mind in two, Baru leads her dearest foes on an expedition for the secret of immortality. It’s her chance to trigger a war that will consume the Masquerade.

But Baru’s heart is broken, and she fears she can no longer tell justice from revenge…or her own desires from the will of the man who remade her.

 will be available on October 30th. Please enjoy this excerpt. 

Prelude

As the firestorm took his ships, as a monsoon rain of greasy incendiaries burnt his people like screaming human skewers, Abdumasi Abd tried his very damndest to die.

“Fire parties to the port rail!” cried his battle captain, poor Zee Dbellu who had come to war with Abdumasi to avenge his grandmother. He was a big dreadlocked man with a green flag bound to his war-spear and a false hope in his voice. He was already dead. Abdumasi had to join him.

“Turn the ship to sea!” Zee bellowed. “Run out the sweeps, soak the rowers, beat the drums! We’ll get out of this yet, I promise you, I promise!”

The fire parties were all dead. The masts had toppled and the rowers lay suffocated at their broken oars. Masquerade rocket arrows had pinned all the corpses to the deck like rare butterflies.

Abdumasi looked up at Zee from under the fallen sail, where he’d crawled to hide. Beyond Zee he could see a sliver of the battle—burning masts and broken ships, arcs of hwacha-fire scratching terrible perfect curves out of the sky, war rockets that crashed down into wood and waves to bloom into blue-white fire. Dead gulls. Vortices of killed fish. The stink of Falcrest chemistry. The scream of fire and the groan of broken hullplanks and beneath it all the ebb and rush of the sea, tumbling the burning dead, stirring the pot of fire and wreckage.

A disaster. A catastrophe. And he had ordered it.

He’d brought his fleet to Aurdwynn to help their rebellion against the Masquerade. He’d joined the rebel armada at Welthony and together they’d struck Treatymont, the colonial capital: a gray cage of ironwork and stone to the north, and two burnt-out towers guarding the harbor like rotten dog teeth.

But the Masquerade had been waiting for them.

“Zee,” Abdumasi whispered, “I’m so sorry.”

And he put his sailing knife under his chin and tried to cut his own throat.

He couldn’t do it. He was too afraid.

“Abdumasi!” Zee howled. “Abdu, where are you? We need you!”

Zee had gone mad when he realized they’d sailed into a trap. Abd saw it happen in his eyes, a meaty pop like a knuckle of lamb in the fire, and from that moment on Zee was mad with among, the rescue-fever that came over Oriati people, sometimes, when their friends and family needed them. A noble madness, the poets said, the best madness, who would not be glad to die in the throes of among?

At burnt Kutulbha, where Abdumasi’s mother had died (now he sent his apologies to his mother Abdi-obdi with all his hopeless heart) whole mobs of good Oriati people had organized themselves with wet blankets and protective taboos and marched into the firestorm devouring the city, sworn to rescue parents, children, pets, books. There was no hope, of course. Falcrest’s Burn munitions had created a wildfire so fierce that it sucked in the air from miles around, like a demon mouth in the city’s heart, inhaling souls. No one rescued anyone. All perished. At the end of that day twenty-three years ago the rain fell on burnt Kutulbha and turned the mud and corpse-ash into concrete, and to this day Kutulbha was a gray disc on the coast of the Oriati Mbo, a dark mortar full of bone.

Into that mortar the Falcresti had inscribed two words in their dull blocky script: THE ARC OF HISTORY.

That horror was what Abdumasi had come to avenge—

—he had begged his fellow Oriati, the Federal Princes and the jackal soldiers, to come to the aid of the rebel accountant Baru Cormorant and her Coyotes. Together they might tear Aurdwynn entirely out of Falcrest’s grasp, pincering the tyrants from north and south—

—but the Princes would not act, the jackal soldiers would not send a fleet, they were terrified of open war, so fuck it, Abdumasi Abd decided to spend his fortune and raise a war fleet himself—

—which was why he had to die, now, right away, no procrastination, no excuses, no second chances. For if the Falcresti captured Abd alive, if they tricked him into admitting who he was (a merchant of great fame) and who’d sponsored his fleet (don’t even think of them, Abd!—but he could not resist the terrible prayer, ayamma, ayamma, a ut li-en) then Falcrest would extract the truth from him.

His ships were not just pirates come to pillage a disordered city but an invasion force backed by secret and terrible powers.

Then Falcrest’s unctuous ambassadors would slither up to the Princes of Oriati Mbo and say, O, kind neighbors, here we have found an influential and great man, a man who somehow misplaced himself into our sovereign waters—but it seems he conspired against our Imperial Republic. Listen, listen: he has confessed everything.

We must have reparations, or there will be war. . . .

And no matter whether the Oriati chose reparations or war, no matter whether Falcrest attacked them with fire or (far more dangerous) sly schools and clever market games, the Oriati would be destroyed. Abdumasi would bring down doom on the two hundred million people of the Oriati Mbo, the heart of the world, his beloved home.

“Abd!” Zee roared, waving his green flag with both hands. “Abd, come to me! We have to rally the ships! We have to go!”

“I need last words,” Abdumasi whispered to himself—that was why he couldn’t cut his throat! He needed brave last words to inspire those who remembered him. “What shall I say? You’ll never take me alive?” He curled up beneath the toppled sail and tried to get his last words just right. “You’ll never take me alive. You’ll never take me alive. You’ll never take me alive! All right. Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck.” He got his hands under him, crouched, tried to fill his head with happy memories—Tau and Kindalana in the lake of drugged cranes, Tau helping him steal honey from Kindalana’s house, all three of them watching Cosgrad Torrinde stagger around high as balls after he licked a frog—“Fuck! Do it. Do it! Death and glory!”

Snarling in defiance, he leapt out from under the sailcloth, his rapier loose in his right hand. “Abdumasi!” Zee cried in mad delight, and behind him the dromon Bred For Laughs exploded in a huge crack of powder as Falcrest fire found her store of mines. The thunder drowned out Zee’s words—Abdumasi saluted him with the rapier, and leapt up onto the ship’s fighting rail to plunge to his death.

“You’ll never take me alive!” he roared, and then he made the awful mistake of looking down before he leapt.

The sea burnt beneath him.

Blue-hot chemical fire simmered on the waves, vicious, viscous, burning everything, cooking up a sautee smell of seawater and charred lumber and boiled fat bursting out through blistered dead skin and incinerated hair, popped eyeballs, chips of toenail off bloated feet; the mortal remains of forty-one shipfuls of Abdumasi’s crews tossed into a fucking wok and stir-fried—

Abdumasi couldn’t jump into that.

Not even if he imagined Kindalana shoving him, not even if he pictured Tau-indi down in the flame urging him on, not even then could he jump. Call him a coward and a traitor to two hundred million people, but there are limits to courage, there are footnotes to the code of bravery, and fire is the first of them.

“Death and glory!” Zee shouted, waving his battle flag, and caught up in among madness he jumped up alongside Abdumasi and leapt over the rail.

“No!” Abdumasi screamed, “Zee, wait!

But too late, gravity had him, a graceful dive and Zee went down through the gel and came up again, coated in flame, the Burn sticking to him everywhere as if it smelled Oriati flesh and hated it, and it burnt even underwater, it fed on the air in his clothes. He screamed soundlessly because the fire was eating all the air that came out of him. He screamed with his face tipped back to the sky, and the Burn went down his throat.

With a sob of shame Abdumasi fell backward off the rail and fled into the burning mess of his war-dromon’s deck. He was too scared to die like that, and fuck the griots who’d blame him for not jumping, they weren’t staring down into that hell, were they?

“You’ll never take me alive!” he wailed, trying to think. He couldn’t see anyone else up on deck who might be convinced to kill him—and anyway they loved him too much, the poor fools, they believed in him. There was no time for poison. He could hang himself. Or he could fall on his sword, if he could aim it right—

Or he could die in combat, like a proper champion.

Abdumasi raised up his head and looked for the enemy.

Tall redsailed Falcrest frigates circled the burning slick of Oriati meat and charcoaled mast. They looked like bloody gulls, lazy on the wind, greedy for carnage.

Abdu held out his rapier and apologized to it. “Well, Kindalana, you were right. It was a trap. I love you, I’m sorry, and please give Tau my apologies.”

So much for his plan to help liberate Aurdwynn. So much for Baru Cormorant, the great hope of the people. So much for the seed of immortality growing in Abdu’s back. It would never carry his soul down through millennia.

He’d sold his body to that hidden power for nothing.

Oh, it wasn’t fair! Of course the world could be cruel, but couldn’t it at least be equitable in its cruelty? If you gave up your soul, if you abandoned those you loved to secure a greater freedom, weren’t you owed a reward?

“Sir!” someone roared—the renegade jackal soldier, Prepare-Captain Minubo of the House Burun. “Mister Abd, sir, they’re coming aboard!”

She stood by the sternrail, pointing with her sword into the inferno—and there through the fire came a Masquerade frigate. It had an abstract human body as its figurehead, carved of facets and planes, the body a wedge, the eyes two candle-flames. The smoke parted around a complexity of ropes and sails that Abdumasi couldn’t comprehend: mystic geometries of canvas and hemp, receding into the smog.

“You’ll never take me alive?” Abdumasi said, hopefully.

And he raised up his rapier Kindalana, named, because of its keen point and difficult grip, after his ex-wife.

Up on the frigate’s bow red-masked figures turned a hwacha on its pivot to point at Minubo. The mechanism sparked and smoked and with a hideous buzz like a very troubled hornet the hwacha fired a quarter of a hundred rocket arrows at the poor prepare-captain, who leapt for cover, and died with steel through her neck and chest. And then Abdumasi was ready to die in defiant battle because fuck them, fuck their smug mechanisms and their neat little ambushes, fuck the impudence of those who believed they could trick and control the thousand-year Mbo, and fuck them in particular for shooting down the prepare-captain, who had given up her career to follow Abdumasi, like she were just a mangy dog.

From the rigging of the enemy frigate, Falcresti marines swung down onto Abdumasi’s ship.

Abdumasi of the house of Abd put up his rapier and advanced. Behind the marines their sleek ship caught on fire: a wave had splashed some Burn up onto the deck. Masked and hooded sailors ran around pouring jars of their own stale piss on the catchfire.

“That’s right!” Abdumasi yelled, banging his rapier’s hilt on the steel bands of a smashed barrel. “Some navy, fighting with your own bottled piss! I bet you drink it, too! I bet you gulp your own piss down and beg for seconds! Come on, take out your little knives! Have at you! Have at you! I am Abdumasi of the House of Abd, master of ships, champion cat gambler, and I challenge you to mortal up-fuckery!”

Six Masquerade marines stared back at him. Red masks stuffed with chemical filters against the smoke. Armored bodies webbed with grenades and devices. Eyes invisible behind dark inhuman lenses as omniscient and indifferent as krakenfly eyes. Abdumasi beckoned to them, joyful, light with the promise of a swift end and a long rest. He could take them on one by one until at last they had to shoot him with their crossbows as they’d shot poor Minubo. Abdumasi had ten years under a swordmaster and four years of real combat—first in the deep Mzilimake Mbo jungle, then out on the Mothercoast, where Falcrest had given the Invijay ships to use for piracy, and Abdumasi had sailed to hunt them down. He might have been born a merchant, but he’d learned how to make men bleed.

The marine with the black slash of an officer across his mask yanked a gas grenade off the rip ring at his chest. The mechanism failed. The grenade’s chemicals didn’t burn, nothing happened.

“Good one!” Abdumasi jeered, leaping over bodies, kicking aside splintered wood, nimble and free with his rapier. He’d dance around these brutes, he’d poke them to death, quickfooted, hadn’t Kindalana loved the grace of his dancing? “Can’t start your fire? Don’t be embarrassed! Happens to the best of us! Come on over here, I’ll show you a weapon that always works! I am Abdumasi of the house of Abd, of Jaro the Flamingo Kingdom, of the Einkorn Crop of Lonjaro Mbo the Thirteen  in  Three  in  One, and I came to kill cuge like you!”

The marine officer shrugged. He said something in Aphalone so muffled by his mask that Abdumasi heard it only as a low sinister diagnosis: the patient is dead.

The rest of the marines walked straight at Abd, shoulder to shoulder, crouched a little against the roll of the ship.

“Sophisticated Masquerade tactics!” Abdumasi bellowed, as a huge sheet of fire roared up across the sea behind him, a slick of leaked cooking oil catching alight. “Come on, form an orderly queue, who wants it first, my blade is lined with moral fiber and if I prick you you’ll realize what a thug you are! Form a—”

The first marine proceeded straight onto his sword.

Abdumasi stabbed him in the eye and the point of his faithful rapier skittered sideways off the marine’s steel-masked cheek, to stick in his shoulder rig, where the man grabbed the blade in his glove and hooked it on knuckle claws and twisted till the rapier bent.

“Fuck,” Abd said, in bemusement.

He went for his belt knife. The marines were too quick. The first studded punch hit like a shot of tequila and Abd went down on the pitching deck under stamping feet and steel truncheons. For a few moments he felt like the lead drum at his own funeral. Flesh pulped. Bone cracked. Abdumasi crawled inside himself like a turtle and tried to dream of sunny days on Lake Jaro. But the lake boiled, and the imaginary cranes impaled him on their beaks, and then the marines beat the memory right out of him.

When they let up he threw his last defiance at them.

“Ayamma,” he whispered, and then, shouting into the face of the man cuffing him, into the indifferent red masks and the sea of burning corpses and the whole tyrannical fucking design of Falcrest and its faceless Emperor, shouting with the terrible bargain he’d made because it was all he had left, “I am a thousand lives, you poor fools, it grows in me, a ut li-en, I have the immortata, the cancer grows!

In Aphalone the marine asked his officer “What the fuck is he saying?”

“Tunk superstition, I suppose.” The officer opened a cloth sack. “He’s their leader. He goes straight to Province Admiral Ormsment for debriefing.”

Desperately Abdumasi pronounced the words of ruin. His friends had told him these words were a curse, they’d tried to keep him from this lonely fate, why hadn’t he listened—because he couldn’t watch as his home was rotted away by cowards and quislings—and so he said the words that would sever him from the human community for all time, and make him into a seeping wound of grief and horrible lonely power.

“Ayamma,” he whispered, “ayamma, ta ao-ath onvastai-ash e ser o-en incrisiath—”

The marine officer put a bag over Abdumasi’s head. He heard the crack of a dose bottle, and then the marine poured a cold sweet chemical through the sack. Abd’s nose tickled and went dead as rubber. Was it ether? Tsusenshan? He didn’t know, he couldn’t remember how to breathe to fight it off—

An octopus-kiss of absence crept over Abdumasi. He fumbled around, trying to find his ruined rapier, so he could hold something named Kindalana, but his hands wouldn’t answer.

He hadn’t managed to die. He’d let everyone down.

At least it wasn’t the fire. At least it wasn’t the fire.

 

Copyright © 2018 by Seth Dickinson

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