Ship of Smoke and Steel (The Wells of Sorcery #1)

Ship of Smoke and Steel (The Wells of Sorcery #1)

Django Wexler

For Casey, who is the best

The Nine Wells of Sorcery

Myrkai, the Well of Fire Tartak, the Well of Force Melos, the Well of Combat Sahzim, the Well of Perception Rhema, the Well of Speed Xenos, the Well of Shadows Ghul, the Well of Life, the Forbidden Well Kindre, the Well of Mind Eddica, the Well of Spirits, the Lost Well


It’s time to get to work.

I move quickly, losing myself among the crumbling tenement blocks of the Sixteenth Ward. The streets smell of salt water and rotting fish, piss and misery. Huddled shapes crowd against the pitted brick, fearful faces staring. This is my Kahnzoka, my filthy, stinking city, and these are my people.

I walk a complex route, to make sure I’m not followed. When I’m convinced there’s no one on my tail, I head to the building that houses my current bolt-hole and climb to the fourth floor. There’s a strand of raw silk stuck between the door and the frame, looking like nothing more than a cobweb, but my eyes find it and I let out a breath. It reassures me nobody’s been here since I left. I unlock the door, step inside, and shoot the heavy iron bolt.

The apartment is a tiny rattrap, not much more than a place to eat and lay out a bedroll. It only has one window, and I’ve shrouded it with thick curtains. There’s no furniture other than a heavy wooden chest; this is just a hideout, not a place to live. It’s not the only one I keep. There are always times when you need somewhere to go to ground.

I tug at the strip of fabric that belts my kizen, and when it gives way I struggle out of the tight formal wrap with a sigh of relief. I kick off the stupid little shoes that go with it, and reach up to free my hair. Unbound, it hangs ragged to the back of my neck. I breathe deep, enjoying the freedom to move.

One long scar traces a path from my collarbone, between my breasts, across my belly to my hip. Another crosses it, running horizontally over my ribs. There are more on my back, on my thighs. But they’re all old scars, from before. History.

I kick open the chest with one bare foot and dress quickly. Leather trousers, a wrap for my chest, and a linen tunic, with a leather vest over that thick enough to turn a blade. It leaves my arms free, the way I like it. Heavy black boots, the bottoms still flecked with dried mud. The boots are a compromise. They slow my footwork, but anything lighter risks stepping on nails or something worse in the filth of the lower wards.

There are no weapons in the chest. I don’t need any.

* * *

Hagan and Shiro are waiting at the agreed-upon spot, at the southwest corner of Rotdodger’s Square. They’ve claimed a space among the beggars by virtue of the long knives sheathed at their belts. As usual, they’re arguing about something.

“Oh yeah?” Hagan says. He’s eighteen, my age, tall and wiry, with brown hair that hangs nearly to his eyes, and a neatly trimmed beard. “Like who?”

“You know Chiya’s?” Shiro is sixteen, shorter and built like a beer barrel, with a wild puff of dark hair.

“Of course I rotting know Chiya’s.”

“You know Binsi, then? Tall girl, waist I could put my fingers around, tits out to—”

“I know that she costs more than you make in a year, you rotting liar.”

“That doesn’t matter, ’cause I never have to pay.” Shiro grins in that way he has, which makes people want to punch him. The crooked angles of his nose show they haven’t always restrained themselves.

“That is the most utter garbage I have ever heard,” Hagan says. “I don’t believe it for a minute.”

“You can believe whatever you—”

He stops when Hagan punches him on the shoulder. Not a serious punch, just to get his attention. They turn to face me, and both give a little bow.

“Boss,” Hagan says. “Was starting to think you weren’t coming.”

“I got a little held up.” I survey the crowd. At this hour, they’re mostly women, the able-bodied men off at their labor on the docks. They wear practical tunics, hair tied back under colorful cloths, off to work or to haggle for the daily meal. No kizen here.

“Nothing terrible, I hope?” Shiro says. He’s new and a little too eager to please, like a puppy. Sometimes I wonder if he takes me seriously. If not, he and I are going to have a talk.

“Just business,” I tell him. “Anything moving around here?”

“The usual,” Hagan says. “Nothing to show they’re worried.”

“Let’s go worry them, then.” I slap him on the shoulder, and push off through the crowd. The two of them fall in behind me.

To an outsider, and maybe even to most of the people who live here, the lower wards look like chaos. A sea of humanity sandwiched between the harbor on one side and the upper wards on the other, living in ramshackle houses built to no particular plan, crooks and brothels and stores all mixed together.

If you were to see all this, and you were an enterprising sort, you might think it was the perfect place to set up shop. You might start, say, a gambling parlor in the gutted-and-rebuilt wreckage of an old countinghouse, fleecing the stupid, the gullible, and the drunk of coins they can’t afford to lose. And you might think you owed your profits to no one but yourself, because the Emperor’s tax collectors don’t show their noses around here.

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