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Author: Sebastien de Castell
Publisher: Orbit, 2018
Hot Key Books, 2017
Series: Spellslinger: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Forced to live as an outlaw, Kellen relies on his wits and his allies to survive the unforgiving borderlands.

When he meets a young woman cursed with a deadly plague, he feels compelled to help. But her secrets draw powerful enemies and it's not long before Kellen is entangled in a conspiracy of blackmail, magic, and murder. As the bodies begin to pile up, Kellen fears he's next.


The Way Of Water

The way of the Argosi is the way of water. Water never seeks to block another's path, nor does it permit impediments to its own. It moves freely, slipping past those who would capture it, taking nothing that belongs to others. To forget this is to stray from the path, for despite the rumours one sometimes hears, an Argosi never, ever steals.

The Charm

'This isn't stealing,' I insisted, a little loudly considering the only person who could hear me was a two-foot-tall squirrel cat who was, at that moment, busily picking the combination lock that stood between us and the contents of the pawnshop's glass display case.

Reichis, one furry ear up close to the lock as his dextrous paws worked the three small rotating brass discs, chittered angrily in reply. 'Would you mind? This isn't as easy as it looks.' His tubby little hindquarters shivered in annoyance.

If you've never seen a squirrel cat before, picture a mean- faced cat with a big bushy tail and thin furry flaps of skin between his front and back legs that let him glide through the air in a fashion that somehow looks both ridiculous and terrifying. Oh, and give him the personality of a thief, a blackmailer and, if you believe Reichis's stories, a murderer on more than one occasion.

'Almost done,' he insisted.

He'd been saying that for the past hour.

Thin lines of light were beginning to slip through the gaps

between the wooden slats in the pawnshop's front window and beneath the bottom edge of the door. Soon people would

be coming down the main street, opening their shops or standing outside the saloon for that all-important first drink of the morning. They do that sort of thing here in the border- lands: work themselves into a drunken stupor before they've even had breakfast. It's just one of the reasons why people here tend towards violence as the solution to any and all disputes. It's also why my nerves were fraying. 'We could have just broken the glass and left him some extra money to cover the damage,' I said.

'Break the glass?' Reichis growled to convey what he thought of that idea. 'Amateur.' He turned his attention back to the lock. 'Easy... easy...'

A click, and then a second later Reichis proudly held up the elaborate brass lock in his paws. 'See?' he demanded. 'That's how you pull off a proper burglary!'

'It's not a burglary,' I said, for what must have been the twelfth time since we'd snuck into the pawnshop that night. 'We paid him for the charm, remember? He's the one who ripped us off.'

Reichis snorted dismissively. 'And what did you do about it, Kellen? Just stood there like a halfwit while he pocketed our hard-earned coin. That's what!'

To the best of my knowledge, Reichis had never actually earned a coin in his life. 'Shoulda ripped his throat out with your teeth like I told you,' he continued.

The solution to most thorny dilemmas - to squirrel cats anyway - is to walk up to the source of the problem and bite it very hard on the neck, preferably coming away with as much of its bleeding flesh as possible.

I let him have the last word and reached past him to pull open the glass doors and retrieve the small silver bell attached

to a thin metal disc. Glyphs etched along its edge shimmered in the half-light: a quieting charm. An actual Jan'Tep quieting charm. With this I could cast spells without leaving the echo that allowed bounty hunters to track us. For the first time since we'd fled the Jan'Tep territories, I felt as if I could almost - almost - breathe easy again.

'Hey, Kellen?' Reichis asked, hopping up on the counter to peer at the silver disc I held in my hand. 'Those markings on the charm - those are magic, right?'

'Kind of. More like a way to bind a spell onto the charm.' I turned to look at him. 'Since when are you interested in magic?'

He held up the combination lock. 'Since this thing started glowing.'

A set of three elaborately drawn glyphs shimmered bright red along the cylindrical brass chamber. The next thing I knew, the door was bursting open and sunlight filling the pawnshop as a silhouetted figure charged inside and tackled me to the floor, putting an abrupt end to a heist that, in retrospect, could have done with more planning.

Four months in the borderlands had brought me to one irrefutable conclusion: I made a terrible outlaw. I couldn't hunt worth a damn, got lost just about everywhere I went, and it seemed like every person I met found some perfectly sensible reason to try to rob me or kill me.

Sometimes both.

The Way Of The Fist

Getting punched in the face hurts a lot more than you might expect.

When somebody's knuckles connect with your jaw, it feels like four tiny battering rams are trying to cave in your mouth. Your own teeth turn traitor, biting down on your tongue and flooding the back of your throat with the coppery taste of blood. Oh, and that crack you hear? It sounds a lot like what you've always imagined bone breaking would sound like, which must be why your head is already spinning a quarterturn clockwise, trying to keep up with your chin before it leaves the scene of the crime.

The worst part? Once your legs recover their balance and your eyes flicker open, you remember that the devastating opponent beating you senseless is a skinny freckle-faced kid who can't be more than thirteen years old.

'Shouldn'a stolen my charm,' Freckles said.

He shuffled forward, causing me to lurch back instinctively, my body having apparently decided it preferred the embarrassment of collapsing in on itself over the risk of getting hit again. Laughter erupted all around us as the crowd of townsfolk who'd come out of their shops and saloons to witness the fight began placing wagers on the outcome.

No one was betting on me; my people might be the best mages on the continent, but it turns out we're rubbish in a fist fight.

'I paid you for that charm,' I insisted. 'Besides, I put it back in the case! You've got no cause to -'

Freckles jerked a thumb up to where Reichis was perched on the swinging sign outside the pawnshop, happily inspecting the silver bell on the charm. Every time Freckles hit me, Reichis rang the bell. This is the sort of thing squirrel cats find hilarious. 'You think I spent all night picking that lock just so you could give the charm back?'

'You're a damned thief,' I told the squirrel cat.

Freckles's face went an even brighter shade of red; he must've thought I was talking to him. I keep forgetting that other people don't hear what Reichis says - it all just sounds like a bunch of grunts and growls to them.

Freckles gave a yell and barrelled into me. The next thing I knew, I was on the ground with the wind knocked out of me and my opponent pinning me down.

'Best get on your feet, kid,' Ferius Parfax suggested in that frontier drawl of hers. She was leaning against the post where we'd tethered our horses, black hat dipped low over her forehead as though she were taking a nap. 'Can't dodge when you're flat on your back.'

'You could help, you know,' I said. Well, that's what I would have said if I could've got any air into my lungs.

Ferius was my mentor in the ways of the Argosi - the mysterious, fast-talking card players who went about the world doing ... well, nobody had yet told me exactly what it was they did. But Ferius was supposed to be helping me learn how to survive as an outlaw and stay clear of the bounty mages who were hunting me. She did this mostly by dispensing such brilliant axioms as, 'Can't dodge when you're flat on your back.' That one annoyed me almost as much as her calling me 'kid' all the time.

Copyright © 2017 by Sebastien de Castell


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