Today we have an excerpt from Robert Jackson Bennett‘s third novel in his Founders series: Locklands. Published today by Jo Fletcher Books in the UK (who kindly provided the excerpt) and Del Rey in North America, first let’s check out the official synopsis:
Once, Sancia Grado was just a thief with a grudge and a rare talent. Then she learned how to use that talent, and beat the great merchant houses of Tevanne at their own game. With Clef and Berenice, she even saw off an immortal hierophant – but the war they’re fighting now is one they know they can’t win.
This time, they’re not facing robber-baron elites or an immortal hierophant, but an entity whose intelligence is spread over half the globe: a ghost in the machine using the magic of scriving to possess and control not just objects, but human minds.
Despite all their efforts their enemy marches on, implacable, unstoppable – and it’s closing in on its true prize: an ancient doorway that leads to the centre of creation itself.
Sancia and her friends glimpse a last desperate opportunity to stop this unbeatable foe – but to do so, they’ll have to unlock the centuries-old mystery of scriving’s origins and pull off the most daring heist they’ve ever attempted.
And as if that weren’t enough, their adversary might just have a spy in their ranks – and a last trick up its sleeve…
Now, on with the excerpt!
<Are you ready?> whispered a voice.
Berenice opened her eyes. The morning sunlight reflected brightly off the ocean, and her vision adjusted slowly, the forms of the city walls and the ramparts and the coastal batteries calcifying in the glimmering light. She’d been meditating so deeply it took her a moment to remember — Am I in Old Tevanne? Or somewhere else? — but then her senses fully returned to her, and she saw.
Grattiara: a tiny fortress enclave balanced atop a thread of stone stretching into the Durazzo Sea, all ocean-gray walls and cloud-white towers and wheeling gulls. It wasn’t quite a town as much as a residue of civilization clinging to the battlements, the homes and huts like barnacles spreading across the hull of a ship. She watched as the little fishing boats trundled up to the piers, their sails pale and luminescent. They reminded her faintly of bat wings catching the first rays of dawn.
“Hell,” Berenice said quietly. “It’s almost pretty.”
<Almost.> Claudia moved to stand next to her at the balcony, her eyes hard and sharp under her dark metal helmet. Her voice whispered in the back of Berenice’s thoughts, quiet but clear: <How far we’ve fallen, to find a little shithole like this pretty.>
<Yes,> sighed Berenice. <And yet, it’s up to us to save it.>
Claudia picked her teeth with a length of wood. <Or at least the people here, anyways.> She flicked her toothpick away. <So — you ready?>
<I don’t know. Maybe. How do I look?>
<Like a grim warrior queen,> said Claudia. She grinned. <Maybe a little too grim. This is a Morsini fortress, mind. The governor might not take to an intimidating woman.>
<It’s going to be a grim conversation. But I’ll make sure to do a lot of smiling and bowing,> she added acidly. She adjusted the way her cuirass hung on her shoulders, feeling the flex and bend of the pauldrons, then plucked at the leather shirt at her neck to let some of the humidity out. Their armor was a far sight from anything like a lorica, as it only covered critical exposures while leaving the joints free to move, but it was still hot as hell in the Grattiaran sun.
<It’ll have to do,> Berenice said. She slung her espringal over her back, then checked to make sure her scrived rapier was sheathed at her side. <Are the espringals rigged up properly?>
<We’ll have to get within line of sight with them,> said Claudia. She pointed to a small plate on her right pauldron, then the same on Berenice’s armor. <But they’ll come to us when we call them.>
<Still think it’s wise to bring weapons to this chat? I mean — they’re going to make us disarm before we see the governor, yeah?>
<Oh, almost certainly,> said Berenice. <But being asked to disarm is a terrific opportunity to show off how many armaments you’re packing.>
<How cynical.> Claudia’s grin flashed again. <I approve.>
The winds shifted, and the reek of rot wormed into Berenice’s nostrils — undoubtedly from the refugee camp sprawling beyond the city’s fortifications. She slipped out her spyglass and glassed the camps on the hills to the northwest.
It all made for a cruelly pointed contrast: the town of Grattiara remained more or less impeccable, its scrived coastal batteries huge and hulking along the sea, the towers of the innermost fortifications still tall and elegant; but mere yards from them lay field upon field of ragged tents and improvised shelters and spoiled waters — a reminder of how much the world had changed beyond this tiny fortress town.
Claudia whispered: <We’ve got movement, Capo.>
Berenice turned to look. A small group of men were making their way down the stairs from the central keep’s gates, all colorfully dressed in shades of blue and red. She studied the keep above, its towers bedecked with espringal and shrieker batteries — scrived models she knew were at least four years out of date. And the walls, of course, weren’t scrived at all, just brick and mortar and decades of patching: no sigils, no strings, no arguments embedded in them to trick them into being preternaturally durable or strong.
“Once it gets here,” she murmured aloud, “it’s going to tear through this place like a hot knife through eel fat.”
<Yeah,> said Claudia. She peered out at the refugee camp. <And all those people are going to die — or worse.>
<How long do we have, again?>
<Last estimate was two weeks,> she said. <It’ll have to go through Balfi to the north, and that should slow it down, we hope. We should have at least a week before it’s at the gates here, Capo.>
Berenice wondered whether those estimates were accurate. If she had a massive army, and intended to use it to annihilate everything in its path — what road would she take, which rivers, and how fast would she move?
How tired I am, she thought, of such grisly questions.
<You still haven’t answered me, Ber,> said Claudia gently. <Are you ready?>
<Getting there,> she said. She walked to where the two other members of her team sat on a small bench before the end of the stairs. Diela, the younger and smaller of the two, popped to attention immediately, standing up so fast her helmet rattled on her head. Vittorio stood languidly, smirking as he unfolded his tall, lean form to stand beside her. He held a heavy wooden crate in his arms, about three feet wide and tall, built of plain wood with a hinged top fastened shut.
“All good?” said Berenice.
<I’m ready to put this thing down and get out of the sun, Capo,> whispered Vittorio in the back of her mind. He made eye contact with her, and his smile grew. <You sure they’re going to let me into the keep with this?>
“They will,” she said. “Remember, both of you — this is purely a diplomatic operation. Just keep your eyes open, keep your gear tight and accessible — and if they make a move on us, remember your training.”
<If it comes to that, fighting off a bunch of merchant house thugs should be easier than what we’re used to,> said Vittorio, now grinning.
Diela blinked beside him, and Berenice felt a slow anxiety building in the back of the girl’s thoughts.
<It probably will not come to that,> Berenice said to the girl. <Again, this is a diplomatic mission. But even if you haven’t seen fighting, Diela, you still know what we know, and you’ve seen what we’ve seen. I have no doubt you’ll succeed.>
Diela nodded nervously, and said, <Yes, Capo.>
<It’s time, Capo,> said Claudia.
Berenice looked up. The men from the keep were close now. She put on her helmet, adjusting it so her eyes looked through its visor properly, and strapped it tight. Eight years I’ve waged this war, she thought, and I still can’t get one of these goddamned things to fit right.
She stood there, tall and assured in her dark armor, and watched as the Morsini men descended the stairs. Once men like this would have frightened or at least worried her, but those days were long since gone: there had been too many battles, and far too much death and horror, for merchant house men to haunt her thoughts.
I’m ready, she thought to herself. I’m ready for this.
Yet she felt a flicker of insecurity, sensing an absence like she’d forgotten something critical. She pulled her spyglass from her pocket and peered through it once more, though this time she glassed the distant ocean, far to the south.
At first she saw nothing but sea, yet then she spotted it — a tiny dot in the distance, just on the horizon.
Sancia and Clef, she thought. Keeping their distance. But they’re there. She’s there.
She heard footsteps, and quickly stowed the glass away.
God, my love. How I wish you were with me here today.
A voice from the stairs, prim and assured: “The governor will see you now, General Grimaldi.”
“Thank you,” Berenice said. “Please lead the way.”
As expected, they were forced to give up their arms before entering the keep proper, which they did without protest. Berenice watched as the Morsini sentries took their weapons and stored them in a large wooden crate beside the gate, which they fastened shut. Before Berenice could even voice the question, Claudia whispered, <Won’t be a problem.>
<Good,> said Berenice.
“And that?” said one of the sentries, pointing at the crate in Vittorio’s arms.
“A gift for the governor,” explained Berenice.
“I’ll need to see it first,” said the man, “and I’ll be the one to take it.”
Berenice nodded to Vittorio, who placed the crate on the ground and opened it up.
The sentry peered in, then looked up at them in wary disbelief. “You sure you have the right box?”
“We do,” said Berenice.
The sentry sighed, shut the crate, and grunted as he picked it up. “If you say so,” he muttered.
They were admitted inside, the scrived doors falling back as their escorts led them on. Having been in many Morsini House installations in her time, Berenice found the keep vaguely familiar: the narrow, winding passageways, the walls of stained glass; and always there were guards, mercenaries, and contractors in all numbers of colors and armor types, though most of their armor was in some state of disrepair.
Finally the four of them were led to the main meeting chamber. It must have been a grand space in its zenith, but almost all the furniture had been removed to make way for a giant table covered in maps, which dominated the room. The sentries gestured, and Berenice walked to stand before it. She realized she knew the maps at a glance: they depicted the Daulo and Gothian nations just to the north. A massive blot of bright red was seeping through the territories there, so much so that it looked like the entire north was bleeding.
She recognized them, for she herself stared at such maps every day. Yet based on the colors and markings she was seeing, these maps were very out of date — much like the city’s defenses.
They think they’re hurrying, she thought. But they have no idea.
She studied the room. Mercenaries and administrators and scrivers sat in a row at the back of the room, waiting to be called upon. They glanced only momentarily at Berenice before looking to one man, who walked to stand above the maps at the far end of the table from her. He was well dressed and well arranged, with an elaborate scrived rapier sheathed at his side, but his face was pale and haggard, his eyes were sunken with exhaustion, and his beard was shot through with gray. Though Berenice had been informed that Governor Malti was only a decade or so older than her, the person before her looked much older.
Perhaps, she thought, this will be a very short conversation, and a lot of lives quickly saved.
The retinue of men in red and blue announced them: “General Grimaldi and the delegation from the Free State of Giva, Your Grace.”
Berenice removed her helmet and bowed. “Thank you for receiving us, Your Grace,” she said. Claudia, Vittorio, and Diela bowed as well, though they did not remove their helms.
Governor Malti slowly looked up from his maps, his eyebrows raised. He studied them with a mildly nonplussed expression. Berenice waited for him to talk, but he seemed in no rush.
Finally he simply said, “So. These are the mythical warriors of Giva.”
The statement hung in the musty air.
“We are, Your Grace,” said Berenice.
“I had almost thought Givans were a fairy story, like ghosts,” Malti said. His words were taut and merciless, like the twang of a bowstring. “Or perhaps the sky sprites my grandpa told me stood guard at the gates of Heaven itself.”
<Given that my ass is soaked in sweat,> whispered Claudia, <I don’t feel very scrumming mythical.>
Berenice attempted a dignified smile. “I would much prefer that we were. Yet we are flesh and blood, and happy to talk to you here in the earthly realm, rather than in Heaven.”
Governor Malti returned the smile, but his was far chillier. “Of course. And you’ve come to discuss my situation here.”
“Yes, Your Grace. Concerning the refugees at your gates.”
“You wish my permission to take them away.”
“If possible, Your Grace. We have the transport available. We are acting solely in the interest of saving lives. It would be to the benefit of all to do so, I would imagine. It must be difficult to maintain your forces with so many displaced citizens in your way.”
“Displaced citizens…” Malti echoed. “What a phrase.” He slumped into a chair, then watched as a sentry placed Vittorio’s crate on the table, bowed, and left. “And to persuade me to let you do so,” said Malti, “you’ve brought me… gifts.”
“We have,” Berenice said. “Of a sort.”
Malti’s gaze lingered on the crate. He did not get up to open it. He did not speak. He just stared at it, as if lost in thought.
<I can’t tell,> whispered Claudia. <Is this going well? Because it doesn’t feel like it’s going well.>
<Quiet,> snapped Berenice.
“You know,” said Malti with sudden cheer, “I am still not accustomed to receiving delegations. Ambassadors. Envoys. That sort of thing. Grattaria, after all, was not really intended for such.” He gestured wearily to the drab brick walls. “We are a fortress, here to guard passage along the coast. Great powers did not used to go to fortresses to meet with statesmen. Rather, they’d go to the states themselves.”
“True, Your Grace,” said Berenice. “But the world has changed since those days.”
“Changed?” he said. A bleak smirk flashed across his face. “Or ended?”
Everyone in the room looked at Berenice.
<Oh shit,> said Claudia. <This got dark.>
“It has not ended here,” Berenice said evenly.
“Not yet. But elsewhere…” His smirk faded. “Eight years ago we were just an outpost in another war. Then, quite suddenly, there were fewer and fewer places for everyone’s envoys to go — so they came here. And now there are almost no nations to send envoys at all.” He leaned forward. “Yet with other delegations, once they’d departed, I generally knew where I could go to talk to them again. I’d have the name of a city, or an island, or a town, or some such. But with the nation of Giva… no one quite knows where the actual nation is, do they?”
Again, Berenice felt every eye in the room on her.
“Giva is located in the Givan Islands,” she said, her voice still even and courteous.
“Oh, I know,” said Malti. “That I’ve been told. But I’ve also been told that, whenever someone sails to those islands, they’re always deserted, and layered with fog — and the further in they go, the more fog they encounter, until they’re forced to give up.” A cold grin. “Are you sure you don’t stand guard at the gates of Heaven, General Grimaldi?”
<Damn,> whispered Vittorio. <He’s not stupid.>
<No,> said Berenice. <He is not.>
“Surely you can appreciate the need for unconventional defenses, Your Grace,” said Berenice. She nodded to the map. “Given what has happened to the Daulo nations, and the Gothian countries, and beyond.”
Malti’s eyes were like ice. “So — you can make walls of fog appear?”
“We have our scrived tools,” she said coolly. “The same as yours.”
He looked away for a moment, thinking. Then he asked, “And tell me, General Grimaldi — did Giva really destroy the enemy’s installations at the Bay of Piscio, some six months ago?”
Berenice could feel Vittorio and Claudia’s surprise blossom in the back of her mind.
<Huh,> whispered Claudia. <I didn’t realize word about that had spread this far.>
“We… did, Your Grace,” said Berenice. But she now felt unsure where this was going.
“And at the port of Varia?” Malti asked. “I’m told the enemy had developed quite the stronghold there — and yet, after you Givans visited, it had utterly fallen. Is this true?”
Berenice hesitated but nodded.
“How?” he demanded.
She thought about it. “Carefully, Your Grace,” she said.
Malti smiled ever so briefly, and then his eyes went distant. When he spoke again, his voice was deadly quiet: “That is very interesting. Because there is only one other power I’m aware of that has ever had such successes against the enemy. So — I must wonder if there is some connection.”
Berenice narrowed her eyes at him. Then she glanced down again at the maps on the table — specifically at a small blot of black in the valleys to the west of all that red. It was a curious little addition, reminding her of some kind of parasite buried in the body of livestock, and though it was tiny compared to the vast sea of red to the east, she knew the black blot was hundreds of miles wide at least. Malti’s advisers had even shaded in the area around the black blot with gray, demarcating the blasted, ruined wastelands caused by years of unspeakable warfare.
She looked up at Malti and said, “Giva stands alone. We have no formal allies, Your Grace. Especially not the one you suggest.”
“But you have so many similarities. Such mystery, such abilities. How can you convince me that you have no association with the devil that sleeps in the Black Kingdoms?”
Everyone watched her. Berenice could hear Vittorio silently counting all the armed men in the room with them.
“Well?” said Malti.
An image flashed in Berenice’s mind — a black mask, gleaming in the shadows as the night filled up with screams — and with the memory came a voice, inhumanly deep and rumbling: I went to places no living human has ever gone before. I glimpsed the infrastructure that makes this reality possible.
<Ber?> whispered Claudia.
Berenice sniffed and cleared her throat. “I was in Tevanne when Shorefall Night happened, Your Grace,” she said. “I saw what he did. I remember. I cannot forget. So I can quite genuinely say now — I would rather die than be the ally of that thing.”
Malti nodded, his eyes still distant. Though she couldn’t tell if he believed this answer, he seemed to find it satisfying. But then his gaze sharpened on Berenice, and he said, “I don’t care about what’s in your box.”
Berenice blinked. “Your Grace, I—”
“I don’t care about gold or valuables,” he said. “After all, there are no free places where I can spend them anymore. And I don’t care about any tools or inventions you might be offering. We have our lexicons, which run our rigs and defenses. Nor do we need definition plates, or any arguments to feed into those lexicons to help them remember how to argue all our tools into functioning as we wish.”
He fell silent, and the intensity in his face was replaced by some deep weariness. Berenice sensed an unasked question hanging in the air, and chose to ask it.
“Then,” she said, “what do you care about, Your Grace? How might Giva help you?”
Malti’s face went very still, his eyes dancing over the maps. “Help me…” he said softly. “Hm. If Giva can damage the enemy, then surely you understand it somewhat. More than the scrivers I have here, at least, who understand it none at all.” He waved contemptuously at the men seated at the back of the chamber, who glared at Berenice.
“We have some knowledge of it, yes,” she said.
Malti studied her yet again. “I have an… issue,” he said. “One that no one can explain. One inflicted on us by the enemy. One so serious that, though it is a very grave secret, I am willing to discuss it even with strangers such as yourselves.”
Berenice understood what he was requesting. “We keep our secrets well, Your Grace.”
“I should hope so,” he said quietly. “If you can aid me with this… this obstacle, then I will grant Giva free passage through the waters about the fortress.” He sighed, then stood and gestured to a closed door at the back of the chamber. “I cannot explain it, for I do not understand it. But I will show you, if you will see.”
Berenice studied the door, thinking.
This was a surprise. She’d expected more blustering and bribery than this, and far more threats.
<Ahh, Capo,> asked Diela. <Is this what you planned for?>
<Not at all,> said Berenice. She looked at Malti’s face, so thin and exhausted. <But I don’t think he’s lying.>
<If we can actually help him, that is,> said Claudia.
<Coming here was a gamble,> said Berenice. <We can only gamble further.>
She nodded to Malti. “We’ll follow,” she said.
Also on CR: Interview with Robert Jackson Bennett (2012); Guest Post on “City of Stairs and the Super Tropey Fantasy Checklist”; Excerpt from City of Stairs; Reviews of City of Stairs and Vigilance