Katsa slunk down the stairway. One left turn and two right turns. She began to hear voices as she entered a corridor where the darkness flickered orange with the light of a torch set in the wall. Across from the torch was another corridor where, according to Oll, anywhere from two to ten guards should be standing watch before a certain cell at the passageway’s end.
These guards were Katsa’s mission. It was for them that she had been sent first.
Katsa crept toward the light and the sound of laughter. She could stop and listen, to get a better sense of how many she would face, but there was no time. She pulled her hood down low and swung around the corner.
She almost tripped over her first four victims, who were sitting on the floor across from each other, their backs against the wall, legs splayed, the air stinking with whatever strong drink they’d brought down here to pass the time of their watch. Katsa kicked and struck at temples and necks, and the four men lay slumped together on the floor before amazement had even registered in their eyes.
Katsa is Graced, born with mismatched eyes and an innate talent for killing. In a world where all Gracelings are regarded with some degree of fear and suspicion, Katsa’s Grace sets her apart as the most dangerous of them all — not least because the king uses her as his personal enforcer, requiring her to torture and kill in response to the slightest offence. But Katsa has a conscience, and the king’s tasks are killing her inside.
The circus arrives without warning.
No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.
The towering tents are striped in white and black, no golds and crimsons to be seen. No color at all, save for the neighboring trees and the grass of the surrounding fields. Black-and-white stripes on grey sky; countless tents of varying shapes and sizes, with an elaborate wrought-iron fence encasing them in a colorless world. Even what little ground is visible from outside is black or white, painted or powdered, or treated with some other circus trick.
But it is not open for business. Not just yet.
Celia is only a child when her father binds her into the magical contest that will come to dominate her life. At the time, her competitor hasn’t even been selected. Nevertheless, her father pushes her endlessly: to study, to practice, to perfect. The beginning is different for Marco, plucked from an orphanage by an elusive magician, but the result is the same. The rules are never explained, but one thing is made clear: there is no option to quit.
My people tell stories of the night I was born. They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world. I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried.
My mother was an heiress of the Arameri. There was a ball for the lesser nobility — the sort of thing that happens once a decade as a backhanded sop to their self-esteem. My father dared ask my mother to dance; she deigned to consent. I have often wondered what he said and did that night to make her fall in love with him so powerfully, for she eventually abdicated her position to be with him. It is the stuff of great tales, yes? Very romantic. In the tales, such a couple lives happily ever after. The tales do not say what happens when the most powerful family in the world is offended in the process.
But I forget myself. Who was I, again? Ah, yes.
My name is Yeine.
Yeine is summoned to the city of Sky by her estranged grandfather, as he approaches the end of his life. She wasn’t expecting to be named as his heir, but she’s not the only one: two of her cousins are also in line, and the fight for power is sure to be ugly. They expect her to capitulate but Yeine has grown up a warrior, becoming ennu of her people while she’s still in her teens, and giving in is not in her nature, even when the odds appear impossible.
Julienne is in a crowded train when a man whose skin gleams smooth as stone appears to inquire after her heart’s desire.
He wears white paper creased into sleeves and robe, and on his head black paper folded into a cap. His faceted eyes are amber glass on an ivory face. But it is when the rush hour parts around him that his inhumanity becomes beyond dispute. Smiling he bares blunt shoeshine teeth and again asks, “What is it that you long for best, that clenches teeth and claws over the ventricles of your heart?”
She ignores him, gazing out the window where the tunnel blurs by in a gray-black haze. Overhead, the indicator blinks green between one station marker and the next. Fortress Hill, Tin Hau. The man disappears before her stop. The crowd flows back into the space he left behind without ever acknowledging he was there.
Afterward she does not remember what the man looks like and his words fade. This is the first strange thing she encounters that day.
(Julienne does not count her aunts as strange. It would be rude, and they are the best relatives one could hope to have.)
Julienne is a mortal woman with two goddess-aunts, so she’s accustomed to seeing more than most people notice. So when she sees a woman bleeding, ignored, on the streets of Hong Kong, she suspects the reason no-one else is helping is because the woman isn’t human. She walks past, once, rightly wary of getting involved with supernatural beings, but she’s too kindhearted to do so a second time.
She helps the stranger back to her apartment, and cares for her, and wakes to find a small portion of her life has been drained away as she slept.
The meeting of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers was well under way, and the entrance hall was almost empty. Only the occasional tardy magician passed through, scarcely sparing a glance for the child waiting there.
Boy children of his type were not an uncommon sight in the Society’s rooms. The child was unusual less for his complexion than for his apparent idleness. Unlike the Society’s splendidly liveried pages, he was soberly dressed, and he was young for a page boy, having just attained his sixth summer.
In fact, Zacharias held no particular employment, and he had never seen the Society before that morning, when he had been conducted there by th Sorcerer Royal himself. Sir Stephen had adjured him to wait, then vanished into the mysterious depths of the Great Hall.
Zacharias was awed by the stately building, with its sombre woodpanelled walls and imposing paintings, and he was a little frightened of the grave thaumaturges hurrying past in their midnight blue coats. Most of all he was rendered solemn by the seriousness of his task. He sat, swollen with purpose, gazing at the doors to the Great Hall, as though by an effort of will he might compel them to open and disgorge his guardian.
We first meet Zacharias as he is introduced to the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers and required to demonstrate on behalf of his race that black men can also use magic. When we see him next, some years later, he’s inherited Sir Stephen’s position as Sorcerer Royal, but his personal position is barely improved: he faces explicit racism at every turn, there are rumours about the legitimacy (or otherwise) of his appointment, and the Society itself is in trouble as England faces a shortage of magic.
Muffled voices chattered in my ear, intruding on the familiar hush of the room.
“Did you hear that?” I looked around, puzzled by the strange sounds.
“What?” Sean replied, looking up from the manuscript.
Traces of gilt shone along its edges and caught my eye. But those faded touches of gold could not account for a faint, iridescent shimmer that seemed to be escaping from between the pages. I blinked.
“Nothing.” I hastily drew the manuscript toward me, my skin prickling when it made contact with the leather. Sean’s fingers were still holding the call slip, and now it slid easily out of the binding’s grasp. I hoisted the volumes into my arms and tucked them under my chin, assailed by a whiff of the uncanny that drove away the library’s familiar smell of pencil shavings and floor wax.
“Diana? Are you okay?” Sean asked with a concerned frown.
“Fine. Just a bit tired,” I replied, lowering the books away from my nose.
Diana Bishop is the last in a long line of American witches, but although wild magic flows around her she was never able to master the simplest spells — and now she tends to ignore that part of her family history as far as possible. As an academic she specialises in the history of alchemy, so she has plenty of opportunity to study the arcane and the magical from a safe and impersonal distance. Then she accidentally calls up a bewitched manuscript from the stacks of Oxford’s Bodleian library, and as her two worlds collide, it’s no longer possible for her to deny her powers or her heritage.