A STRANGER IN THE CITADEL by Tobias S Buckell (EXCERPT)
From powerful storyteller Tobias S. Buckell (Crystal Rain), a complex novel of humanity’s passion for the written word. At the revolutionary crossroads of magic, betrayal, and long-forgotten truths, a naïve, compassionate royal and a determined, hunted librarian discover a dangerous world of mortal and ancient menaces.
The life of the youngest musketress of Ninetha has been one of hard training. But Lilith’s days have also contained many pleasures, the royal privileges of her family’s guardianship of the Cornucopia, a mystical source of limitless bounty. Lilith has never seen a book, and she never expects to encounter one within the safety of the citadel.
When Ishmael, an outcast librarian, shows up outside the Afriq Gate, Lilith saves him from immediate execution by her father’s second-in-command, the zealot Kira. As Lilith’s curiosity draws her to Ishmael, she lets slip her family’s most dangerous secret to Kira, sparking a deadly rebellion and an unexpected journey full of stunning revelations.
A Stranger in the Citadel is due for release on 17th October from Tachyon Publications
You can pre-order your copy on their website HERE
The gods say, “You shall not suffer a librarian to live.”
I knew those holy words well, even as far from the center of the world as Ninetha was. But I truly didn’t understand the weight of them until I saw the man in the jagged brown-and-red-patterned cloak brought by his bound hands across the sandy mud under the Africa Gate’s arches, where the lions carved from the stone glared at the boundary between the wastelands and the city. The seven herders around the stranger yanked at the ropes they usually yoked their goats with as they pulled him into the city.
“Stop that!” I shouted.
The captured man’s hair looked like a ragged bush; clearly, he’d walked the wastelands for far too long. It bobbed in the air as he stumbled, as the herders ignored me and forced him along.
“He’s a traveler!” I yelled. Travelers deserved hospitality. They deserved to be treated like treasured family members. So few of them ever came over the far horizon of sand that stretched all around Ninetha. We didn’t want them to return to their own lands with stories about Ninetha’s barbarity.
As one of the daughters of the Lord Musketeer of Ninetha, I had to make sure our actions represented the honor of our city, and my father. My duty here was plain.
“Leave him be!”
“This is no traveler,” one of the herdsmen spat.
The stranger pulled back against them and tried to stand. Some of the herders yanked back on the two ropes around his neck to choke him, until his eyes streamed with tears. Another jumped in between the ropes and hit the man in the chest with a heavy wooden crook. I heard the thud from a full street’s width away as I walked toward the small crowd.
“I said, stop that!” I imitated my father’s cold, hard voice. I tried to act as if the fact that my order would be followed was a foregone conclusion, just as he would.
But the small mob didn’t respond.
“She said, stop it,” said Kira, who was standing to my right. She stepped forward and swept her hands free of her bright-green robes to point at the other two bodyguards following me.
The herders paused to look over at us with a bit more attention, and their faces twisted with fear as they recognized Kira.
“Guardian, we found him out by the eastern grazes,” one of the herders said, raising his arms and backing away from the beaten captive.
Another herdsman dropped to his knees in front of me and held a bundle of fabric up to us. “He tried to capture one of our goats. He carried this with him.”
Kira sliced the twine wrapped around the bundle with one of her long daggers, then slid the dagger softly back into its leather sheath.
“It’s—” one of the herders started.
“A book,” Kira said, loathing clear in her voice.
She dropped it to the ground, as if it had burned her hands. We all stepped back away from the paper that flapped in the wind as the pages rustled about. I stared at the book. It felt so wrong to be in the middle of the street near something so forbidden.
“Burn it,” Kira ordered one of the guardians.
“No!” The bound man lurched forward, dragging herders with him as he struggled to grab the book. Kira kicked him, a leather boot to the side of his desert-scoured face, and knocked him clean out.
One of the guardians knelt beside the book and snapped a flint until sparks showered the pages. The thin, symbol-marked paper flared up into flames in the middle of the street, and black smoke curled up into the air around us all.
Everyone moved back away from it, scared to breathe the ink-stained smoke.
Kira looked relieved. “Stay here. Keep it burning until you see only ashes on the street,” she ordered the guardian with the flint.
“But Commander Kira.” The guardian stood up from the burning book and looked at me. “Two guardians must remain with her at all times.”
“I’ll be the second,” Kira said. “It is my decision. I am the Lady of the Watch.”
Kira commanded the One Hundred Guardians, but every single one of them knew who ruled Ninetha. And my father had ordered that two guardians walk with me. Always.
I watched conflict struggle across the guardian’s face, until she surrendered to Kira’s will. “Yes, Commander.”
“I can spare a guardian,” I whispered to her.
“No. Your father is right. There are desperate people here. Hungry, starving folk who would see you as an easy meal.”
“One day, I’ll ask my father whether it’s he or you who truly rules Ninetha,” I said from the corner of my mouth.
Kira paused. She bit her lip for a second, and then leaned close to me. “That is not a joke, Lilith. Never repeat it around the guardians, and never, for my sake, please, ever say it around your father.”
I looked at Kira’s normally pleasant, angular face and cheeks. And in her dark eyes, just a shade lighter than the brown skin on her arms, I saw no humor or patience. Instead, she looked scared, and maybe a little haunted.
I had thought of her as steady, unshakeable, and a ruler of the world—like my father.
In fact, I thought of Kira as a mother.
But this was all a small reminder for me of how Ninetha really worked. Kira had pledged her life, her authority, and her all to my father.
“Well, you are more a ruler than I am,” I said to her. “Those herders didn’t stop beating that man when I said to.”
“You’ll learn to hold your authority in your voice yet,” Kira promised me. She cupped my chin with her hand and kissed my forehead. The glazed, clay beads woven through her tightly curled hair clacked as she came so close, and the smell of sweat, sand, and oil filled the air between us. “Besides, the man they captured is a bookist, a librarian, a profaner of the commandments. They were right not to listen to you. There are higher laws than just our city’s. There are the godly laws, and every one of us is bound to follow those no matter where we live, or who we are. And that law says we must put him to death.”
“Of course,” I agreed, and wondered if Kira, who had carried me on her side before I could walk, could hear the lie in my tremor of a voice.
It just didn’t feel right to harm a defenseless man. I loved Kira, like the sun and the moon, but the way she so easily talked about killing another person blew a confusing flurry of feelings through me—worry, fear, and a small stab of revulsion that then made me feel shame, as Kira was one of the most trusted people in the citadel, and she was my teacher. Who was I to doubt her?
Kira gently grabbed my shoulder. “You are a good person, Lilith. But you have to let go of your feelings about this. Society requires us to punish criminals. You can’t let your dog root around in the trash barrel, or soon your house will be that barrel. I know this won’t be easy, but it is important.”
She’d said the same thing before a flogging once. She’d made me watch the woman’s bare back bleed as the price for her thievery.
“We will strangle him right here, on the street. The herders can take the body back out into the wastes,” Kira announced as she stepped away from me.
I didn’t have Kira’s presence. I could not make pronouncements, or calmly tell people what they were going to do in such a way that they felt compelled to do it. But I had some skills in turning people to my will. My mind raced furiously to find a way out.
“Kira, you’re right. The stranger is perhaps a librarian, certainly a book lover. There is a higher justice he has to face. Death. But this is Ninetha, not the wastelands out beyond the Five Gates. And the one who decides how a man dies should be my father. Not us.”
Kira stopped in place, then turned back to me. She spread her arms, acknowledging the point. But I could see her jaw clench for a second. “You are correct, Musketress.”
She always used my formal title when I annoyed her, but she couldn’t disagree out loud with what I’d said.
“We’ll take him into the citadel,” I said. “And let the Musketeer of Ninetha himself judge the stranger’s death. That is the right thing.”