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The Aurea Trilogy: Preview

Chapter 1

“The trick to stealing from an Aurean,” said Lei with emphasis, “is to tell them you aren’t stealing at all.”

The young couple leaned closer to him across the rum-stained bar. They were both milk-white and moon-eyed, like most of the folks spilling off passenger boats and into the port taverns these days. Not yet cooked brown and steamy under the kingdom’s sun. Lei would know; that had been him, too.

“I heard Aurea was full of honest people,” said the woman in English, with an accent that wasn’t Mediterranean for once. Her flyswatter lashes batted. With the End’s supernatural fallout in play, she could have been twenty or two hundred years old. “That’s why we came.”

“Not to mention the defenses,” added her dark-haired companion.

“That’s just it, though,” said Lei. He poured himself an anise raki—Nolly wouldn’t mind—and waved at a sweaty gaggle of girls across the room. “Aureans think the danger’s outside the wall. They never expect anyone in town to lie, or wiggle clammy little fingers into their pockets.”

“So, they’re gullible,” the man dismissed with a sniff.

Lei bit back a grin. This rich sucker’s eyes were bottle-blue under the burnished light. His hand returned protectively to his pocket every few moments, like a flare signal.

“Definitely gullible,” Lei said, after just enough of a pause to be rude.

Around them, the after-dinner crowd of sailors at the Bastard’s Nest swelled to a squawk, and Lei took that opportunity to lean farther over the wooden bar—close enough to smell the couple’s matching minty breath and see the outrageous thread count of their shirts.

“All you have to do is get them to trust you,” he said, dangling a casual hand off the edge of the bar. “Get them thinking you’re on their side, in on a secret promise. A besa, like the old-world Albanians say.”

“And then?”

“You’re in far enough to strike.”

In one fluid, impossible movement, Lei snaked his hand forward and plucked the man’s wallet from his pocket.

A long, embarrassing moment passed in which the man did not notice.

Lei sighed, and waggled the leather slip in his face. “You see?”

The man reared. “What the—I didn’t even feel that.”

“Because you weren’t watching,” said Lei, though he knew it wouldn’t have mattered either way. “Because you trusted me.”

The woman’s lashes fluttered at double-speed. “You certainly are good, mister bartender.”

“Oh, I don’t make the drinks. I just inhale them.” Lei flipped the wallet through his fingers a few times before tossing it back to its flummoxed owner. “Enjoy the city now, you hear? And don’t let the Sanguifolk bite.”

“Mm,” said the woman. “Anything else bite around here?” Her gaze shone whiskey-hot, and she shrugged off her very unnecessary shawl to reveal a low-cut blouse.

Lei considered the shimmering expanse of skin. The clenched jaw of her companion told him seducing this girl would give him a smashed nose. The haughty curve of her lipstick told him falling in love with her would give him a smashed heart. Equally distressing.

“The taxes, mostly,” he said, and dismissed them both.

The couple moved toward one of the rickety tables up front: the one under the picture of a grinning cuckoo. Lei turned back to his raki

Two dark brows made an angry V in his direction.

Lei Lancaster,” said the owner of the Bastard’s Nest. Her long brown arms were crossed, one column of hair over each shoulder to keep the port district’s stuffy heat off her neck. She had been upstairs in her apartment, fixing a leaky pipe.

“Good golly, Miss Nolly,” Lei chirped.

“Are you teaching thievery in my tavern?”

“I’m committing thievery in your tavern.” Lei held up the fifty-sterli coin he’d snagged from the man’s wallet.

Nolly confiscated it. “Please behave,” she said. “You’re not six birth-years old anymore. A guard catches you, you’ll be in the cells for a week. And out of my guest room.”

“I don’t get caught,” Lei reminded her. “Besides, before the End, people aged twice as slow as we do, right? So since I’ve been in your attic for five years, that’s like ten old-world ones. You can’t throw me out after a decade—I go with the décor.”

“That is not how it works,” said Nolly.

It worked like this: you were born into this frantic new evolution, and after nine years, you were indistinguishable from an old-world adult twice your age. Then, depending on how quickly your body digested the magic in the air, you stopped growing altogether. Freeze-frame, forever. Even old-world survivors had found their bodies grinding to a halt a year or two after the End.

Nolly had stopped aging shortly after eleven years, preserved at the old-world age of twenty-two like a moth in a gleaming bubble of amber. With her willowy, whipcord frame and dark eyes that barreled straight through you, Lei had always thought she was the most beautiful person he’d ever met.

Well, he amended. Second most beautiful, anyway.

“I can’t help but notice you aren’t returning that young man’s money,” said Lei.

“Someone like that will get swept right into an Upper Sektor career,” Nolly hedged. “I’d rather give this to—” Her gaze whipped down the bar, where two women had unsheathed their fists over spilled wine. “Hey. If you can’t keep your heads on, the guillotine’s right up town.”

“Sorry, Miss Bellator,” the women muttered, mollified.

Lei almost giggled. Nollified.

“Enough with that dopey look,” Nolly told him, swatting him with a rag. But her face had relaxed. “What’s on your agenda for the night? Before you help me mop, that is.”

“Tight spaces, pretty faces, same places. You know.”

“I don’t,” said Nolly, but smiled.

“And you?”

She shrugged, wiping sweat off her temple and refilling someone’s rum. “Just this.”

Despite her intolerance for alcohol and alcohol-fueled bullshit, Lei knew Nolly’s love for her bar was fierce. She’d inherited the place from her soldier father after he’d fallen to a skirmish in Drochwold, and since Aurea’s shit-whisker of a king refused to allow women in his guard, she’d had no choice but to run the Nest for income. After all, Nolly’s other talent was also out of favor under this monarchy.

The West was too reliant on fragile machines,” Lei had once heard King Erebus preach. “When their Final War bombings wrecked that fancy technology, they were helpless to the Magicfolk that blazed in from other realms to take their land. Recreating old-world devices would only bring further weakness.

Lei wasn’t so sure. Nolly’s drink-pumping machines were truly Aurea’s strength.

“So,” Nolly said, adjusting her billowy sleeves. “Who’s the lucky one getting Lei’d tonight?”

“Up for debate,” said Lei, glancing around the old wood walls. A girl in a periwinkle sundress caught his eye as she downed a shot of something sickly green, and a short man in a scrap of a sailor’s shirt leered at him from under a blue and white flag. “Who looks the sweetest?”

“Since when do you care about sweet?”

Lei kept his tone light. “Hey, I’m a boy looking for soul-shattering love.”

“Right, right. Like your soulmate, the guard you convinced to let you off easy by—”

“That’s different. That’s just business.” Lei stretched his smile wider, until the seams hurt. “I can’t not swindle a guard in Ven’s…honor.” He readjusted his belt and his roughened voice. “Anyway, while I could absolutely seduce anyone in this bar, I was actually thinking I’d hit the alleys and—”

“Not anyone in this bar,” came a new voice.

“Coco,” Lei cheered.

Covell Chevon looked as pleased as Lei had ever known him—down to the scowl and twenty-pound bags under his eyes. He had long-since worn little lines into the dark skin between his brows. Sweat-soaked and sizzling with heatstroke, he practically fainted into the stool across from Lei and Nolly.

Nolly leaned over to kiss the corner of his downturned mouth. “How was work, agapi?”

“There are too many goddamn people coming into Aurea,” Covell said, cradling the water Lei handed him. His curls sprang loose from their gel. “All need stone hauled for houses, too.”

“Well, when you wall hundreds of people who don’t get old into the safest kingdom on Earth and let them breed…”

“Stop, stop,” Lei interrupted. “I want to hear why your boyfriend thinks I couldn’t seduce him.”

Covell didn’t even look at him. “Have you seen the papers yet, Nol?”

“I’ve been unloading bottles all day. No help from Lei.”

“I did too help!”

“You played cards with the sailors and pissed one off so bad, he threatened to stop shipping lemons for our water.”

“Because I won us thirty sterli off a game of gleek. You’re welcome.”

Covell unfolded a damp piece of newsprint from his trousers and splayed it on the table. “Word is, the prince is finally coming of age. Ten birth-years.”

Lei peered at the headline: “Prince Raven’s coronation to take place Sunday, noon, at Cromwell Square.” No one had ever seen so much as a sketch of the guy—the king hadn’t even announced his existence until four years ago. That made him a juicy piece of gossip to snarl over.

A sailor leaned into their conversation, his breath a firestorm of ale. “Last time I delivered in Aurea, I heard Raven’s never let out ‘cause he’s got a big ugly forehead,” he offered.

“Maybe he’s allergic to our pollen,” added the round-faced woman next to him.

“I don’t trust anyone who hides like that.”

“We’ll know soon enough,” Nolly said.

“We’ll know Sunday,” said Covell. Two days from now. “I guess he’s officially getting in line for the throne, whoever he is.”

Whomever,” Nolly muttered.

Whoever he is, he can’t be worse than your old Aeris,” said the sailor.

“Erebus,” the woman corrected. “Aeris is the daughter.”

“And not a chance at a coronation for her,” huffed Nolly. “Even though she’s firstborn. You know, my father was born in 1992, twenty years before the End—he told me there were queens in the old world, not just kings.”

“Well, when Erebus created Aurea, everyone who still thought as backwards as him was free to crawl out of their swamp and shout until you couldn’t hear anyone else.”

“Maybe Raven will be different,” said Nolly.

“Didn’t Erebus kill his wife?” someone new interjected.

Another voice: “I don’t know about that, but I heard he’s killed Argentfolk with his bare hands.”

“I’ve never even seen an Argie.”

“And you wouldn’t want to, genius. Why d’ya think Erebus built this wall?”

Lei sighed. He hated politics. Especially when it was all Dustpan-quality drivel that wouldn’t get him into anyone’s pants or pockets. He didn’t care how many people slimy Erebus had killed, or if Prince Raven were a talking sea lion—he cared that his raki was gone, and the room felt an inch to the left.

He nudged Nolly, who was visibly about to launch into another justice-fueled tirade. “I’m gonna head out. Early worm gets to squirm, or whatever.”

“Okay. Mopping,” she reminded him. “After closing. Don’t forget.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it.”

Lei blew her and Covell a kiss, then took his leave. He paused at the bar’s logo, painted crudely above the door: a red-crested bird tossing back a wink as it dropped its egg into another bird’s nest.

As always, Lei winked back.

Outside, the smells of the tavern district—the Swig—shouted greetings: sex, vomit, rum sloshing against cobblestones. Most bar owners claimed they went nose-blind to it after a while, but Lei didn’t want to. These were his smells, the kind that got you drunk just by proximity.

One look down the overcrowded street told Lei he’d be taking the high ground tonight. Like most of Aurea’s buildings, the Swig’s were a dry, pale sandstone, but they were lower-slung here, boxy and sniffing at the streets. A five-second climb.

In a movement that should not have been easy, Lei wiggled his fingers into the grooves of the Nest’s wall and hoisted himself above the bar, then the apartment, then the flat roof. He didn’t understand why no one else traveled this way. He’d learned to scale Aurea’s walls the day he and Ven had shuffled off the boat from Cognito five years ago—well, except for the gleaming, ten-story wall surrounding the kingdom. Even the Argentfolk’s fabled barbed skin couldn’t manage its polished surface.

There wasn’t much wind with a wall like that, but Lei still found a pocket of breeze to soak in. From up here, he could see the way summer slow-roasted the city over a spit. Even headed into the evening, it was a desert: steaming roads, glaring sun, the mirage of the golden castle in the distance.

It was hard to believe this place had once been nothing but tangled scrubland. It had stayed safely tucked under the covers watching Italy and Greece to either side get blown to bits by humanity’s nuclear Final War before Magicfolk had taken advantage of the worldwide chaos with their own explosions. The End. Now, Aurea was a sizzling little melting pot where Mediterranean survivors threw up their native colors and the old white king threw up more beige.

But Aurea was Lei’s home, and not just because he loved the sea-legged sailors and their pocket money. Cognito—old-world Canada—had become an unlivable, half-digested wilderness riddled with literal demons and hideous fur hats. Lei had been only one of hundreds on their way out.

As he crossed the gap-toothed rooftops, Lei looked fondly at the ocean he’d come from. Past the bleached trading hubs at the port, it was a never-ending jewel, a blue-on-blue clash lapping up the rot on the ships’ hulls.

It’s everything, Lei would have signed to Ven. Even now, he wished he could get the sea to replace the blood in his veins.

He shimmied down the wall of Nolly’s rival bar, the Vault, and slid between the cracks of the crowd. It was a short walk to a particular alley, where Lei could already see a gathering of filthy heads bobbing beneath second-story balconies.

They didn’t see him as he pulled himself into the alley through a skintight crevice, sliding a deck of cards from his pocket.

Lei tapped the nearest shoulder. “Boo.”

The girl whipped around, her tied-back hair slapping Lei in the nose. When she saw who it was, her teeth came out. “Weasel.

“Hey, Squirrels.”

The rest of the circle turned, dice and cards between sweaty palms. “Oh no,” said a plump boy from between his buck teeth. “No, we can’t afford—”

“Charly, Charly,” said Lei, slinging an arm around the boy’s shoulder. “Yes, you can. Street-sweepers make more than minimum wage, right? Come on, I’ll even let you win the first round.”

“Hell naw,” Charly said. “You cleaned us out last time you came ‘round. I lived off figs for a week.”

“Sure, but your paycheck bought me a few nice hats.”

“Hey, I still wanna play,” said another boy. He was an overgrown weed of a thing, like an animal perpetually shedding its skin—all peeling sunburn and fraying tufts of hair.

“Course you do, Scrappy,” said Lei. “Who else? Beka? Silke? Lancelot? We need at least three for gleek.”

They looked at each other, and Lei waited, like always. There was nothing that lured a gambler like unwinnable odds, and these were abysmal.

Beka, the girl with the tied hair, broke first.

Lei cracked his knuckles and slid his cards out of their box.

Scrappy took them for inspection, while dewy-eyed Silke patted Lei down. He happily let her. The Squirrels were the only people who knew to check him for cardsharps up his sleeves and weighted dice in his pockets, and Lei liked the added challenge. Repeat customers forced him to learn new tricks.

Five years ago, Lei allowed himself to muse, he wouldn’t have dreamed of such chicanery. Ven had been as honest as the rest of Aurea, and thus, so had Lei. Their weeks alone in these streets had been filled with the sort of miserable scrounging that came when you hadn’t yet learned that you did not necessarily have to ask for what you needed in order to obtain it.

I trust you, Ven had signed on their hungriest nights, smiling shyly. Their fingertips had barely brushed, but Lei had felt the touch everywhere. We’ll find a better way to survive.

When the Squirrels were satisfied, everyone sat on the filthy ground. They’d decided not to risk using Lei’s cards, even if they couldn’t see any obvious tricks. Charly, smirking, pulled out his own deck—the same make as Lei’s—and dealt the players three sets of four each.

Lei smiled sweetly. “Got anything to drink, Charly-boy?”

“You want our money and our good whiskey?”

It had been worth a shot. Lei shrugged, pulling a small flask from his boot and popping it open. A strong aroma of pepper nosed into the air.

With all but eight of the cards dealt, Charly placed seven of them into a pile in the center, then flipped the eighth over on top. A five.

“Towser,” Charly declared with triumph. “Pay to the dealer.”

Good, Lei thought, as everyone tossed Charly five sterli. That’ll soften your eyes a little.

Preferring the excitement of blind gleek, everyone kept their cards face-down in two neat rows. Lei scrolled his gaze across them all, observing the thirteen-petal flower inked on each card’s design.

“Anyone want to bid for the stock?” Lei asked, gesturing at the draw pile.

He watched where Charly’s nod fell—Beka. She smirked in return. Lei knew why: Charly had dealt her six cards with a shorter first or thirteenth petal. Aces and kings.

Sneaky little Squirrels, Lei thought approvingly.

Lei pocketed the deck Scrappy had inspected and rejected—Charly’s real, unaltered deck. Someday Charly would learn to stop keeping it in his breast pocket, where anyone with a friendly arm around him could swap it for a pricey custom set.

Scrappy had seen Charly’s nod, too. Both Squirrels declined to bid on swapping their hands with the stock pile.

“Then we’re vying the ruff,” said Lei, nudging his flask closer to Beka. “Who opens?”

“Ten sterli I’ve got the best hand,” said Beka.

Of course. “Twelve,” Lei countered.

“I’m out,” Scrappy said instantly, and dumped twelve sterli in front of him. Smart move.

Lei faced Beka down, who couldn’t hide her yellowed grin.

“Fourteen,” she said.

“Sixteen,” Lei replied.

It went on for just long enough until, at thirty-two, the reek of Lei’s black pepper gin and tonic had Beka’s eyes watering, her face rearing back in a sneeze.

She let out a fearsome “hah-choo!” and all eyes went to her face. Lei’s hand darted forward and replaced one of her aces with a two from his own hand, keeping his upper body still.

“Th-thirty-four,” Beka managed, and when she and Scrappy both sneezed again, Lei took the second ace, as well as a queen. “Weasel, what is in that stuff?”

Lei said, “My usual,” took a swig from the flask, then continued, unaffected, “Thirty-six.”

By forty-four, he had three aces and most of Beka’s face cards, leaving her a few goodies for appearance’s sake. The last ace was at the far end of her row, all the way by Charly. Even Lei couldn’t make that swap without anyone noticing.

“Fifty sterli,” Beka crowed.

“No way,” said Lei. “Prove you even have that much on you and I’ll match the bid.”

“Sure.” Beka drew out her coin purse and counted them in her hands. “Here’s five, then ten…”

Everyone leaned in, eyes on the way the sun glared off the coins. Aureans and their gold.

Lei leaned in, too—and made the final card swap.

“Fifty sterli,” he and Beka agreed.

They flipped over the cards. Lei claimed his mournival of four aces and gleek of three kings. Beka stared at her hand—humdrum at best—in growing dismay.

“You—you—” Charly spluttered.

“You dealt the cards yourself,” Lei reminded him, as he collected Beka’s fifty sterli and Scrappy’s twelve, as well as extra for the two sets. “And you wouldn’t cheat, eh? Bad luck, gang.”

The look Beka shot him could have drowned a fish.

“How about I get us some drinks?” Lei amended, as he gathered up the cards and discreetly swapped them for Charly’s real deck, tossing it to him. “My treat.”

Half a dozen faces lit.

Lei snuck a bottle of rum from the bar next door, and lost grip on the next hour or three. The Squirrels were terrible gamblers but excellent drinkers, and soon they were all swaying, belting an old-world song about something called a bicycle. Any animosity melted down to the dregs.

The crescent moon rose, a thin-lipped smile beyond the wall. Singing became drunken storytelling, then cards, then more singing, at a dreadful volume this time.

Silke ended up in Lei’s lap, radiating summer heat. Scrappy ended up face-down on the ground.

“Let’s play a new game,” Beka said to Charly through a burp. “Do or tell?”

“Tell,” Charly slurred, propped against the wall.

“Do you really have one of those old-world compute-y things in your house?”

“Yeah, but it don’t work without that…elec…elementary…trip-city thing ‘nymore.”

“Sharp as a marble as always,” said Lei.

Everyone snorted. Lancelot nudged Scrappy awake for another round of shots, which was one stir of the pot too many for Lei—now every color of the night blended into soup.

Lei focused on the feeling of the flask in his hand, Silke’s smooth hair rustling with his breath. Not as soft as Ven’s, he thought before he could stop himself. He re-determined which blurry shapes were which Squirrels, and found the ground under him.

“Me next,” he said.

Beka’s eyes lit. “Do or tell?”

There wasn’t enough rum on all the world’s ships that would loosen Lei enough to let these Squirrels ask about his tricks. “Do,” he said.

Oh-ho,” Scrappy roared.

“Let me come up with it,” Charly insisted. “Please.”

Beka shrugged. “Shoot.”

“Let’s make him go outside. Past the wall. I want to know what it’s like.”

Lei arched an eyebrow—as best as he could for an intoxicated person.

“Pshaw,” went Beka. “No way. There’s, like, monsters ‘n shit.”

“He could outplay ‘em,” Charly insisted. “Prob’ly the only one who could.”

“You just want the Sanguifolk to gobble me up so I can’t win any more of your sterli,” said Lei, winking at Silke.

She beamed, and leaned into the side of his face. “I think it’d be worth another fifty coin if you said yes,” she whispered against his jaw. “Or…something else?”

Warmth drizzled under Lei’s ribs. “It would be nice to have even more respect around here,” he drawled. “And if you fell in love with me, that’d be an added bonus.”

Silke laughed, and like everyone, assumed he was kidding.

Lei slid out from under her and took a shaky stance on the cobblestone. “All right,” he announced. His grin was boundless. When life had become a riggable game, why ever turn down another dealt hand? “Get me to the gate.”

 

~

 

Tittering something fierce, the Squirrels followed Lei as he wobbled and burped his way through West Sektor. It was essentially the Swig with fancier socks on: restaurants shoved between boisterous storefronts, overcrowded patrons slurping spiked cocoa and gobbling bread glazed with olive oil.

Rows of blowy half-off sundresses smacked Lei in the face, late-night gyro stands standing bow-legged in his path. The idea behind putting up shops on either side of the tavern district was that newcomers would forget which stores were on which side and roam back and forth, picking up drinks along the way. It was sure hard to hold onto your wallet—and stomach—that way.

Luckily, Lei had plenty of practice. They made it through the cacophony of merchandise, past the Roman columns smothered by the king’s Old English Renaissance, and skirted around a new theater production somewhere between The Sound of Music and Macbeth.

If Lei had been sober enough to process it, the dissonance between the old and new worlds would have given him an earache—it was so different from Cognito, where life before the End had been wiped clean by the white wash of snow.

We didn’t have music, Ven had signed to him once. Father didn’t even sing.

Silke gasped, yanking Scrappy out of the way of an oncoming supply cart. Dust flew up from the horse’s hooves in fuming clouds. “This is not a walk to take drunk,” she complained.

“Almost there,” Charly insisted. “I wanna see this.”

They pressed on through the manufacturing district, tasting the sparks of ironwork, hearing the unfixable squeal of gears. Families of doctors and seamstresses grimaced down at them from the flat çardak balconies atop their businesses. Lei called out several inappropriate greetings.

Eventually, the cross-hatched iron bars of the gate into Argentwold hulked before them, pressed into the bottom of Aurea’s wall. At least five blurry guards ringed the base, directing traffic, and Lei knew more were stationed in the towers on either side of the door.

He squinted hard at them. It was stupid—Lei didn’t remember the face when he was sober, much less drunk off his ass—yet he still searched in vain for the guard who had taken Ven from him.

“You think they’re gonna let you through?” Beka asked, watching two men search a loaded cart on its way out.

“You’re not advised to leave without a party, but they’ll let you,” said Lei. “Or else Erebus would have riots on his hands. I, of course, am my own party.”

He strode—well, okay, staggered—up to the cart, noting its hunting knives and climbing gear, as well as the woman finalizing permissions with the guards. This was an easy one. Lei simply climbed onto the cart’s back ledge, pulling a bag of gear into his lap and dangling his legs off the edge.

With the inspection complete, the hunter swung into her saddle, cued her horse, and the cart set off through the slowly-rising gate. She never even looked back.

Lei watched as five Squirrel faces gaped, then shouted after him, then became little more than mushy oatmeal in the backdrop. He waved to them, then waved to the guards, who presumed he had been there all long. They even tossed him a “good hunting” salute.

Lei did not think, I am about to put myself in the path of world-killers for fifty sterli and a night with a pretty girl.

He did not realize, In all my years here, I’ve never been outside the wall.

The Weasel did not lose bets. The Weasel did not get caught. The Weasel was built out of good times and bad wine.

Right now—every night—since Ven—Lei was the Weasel.

And so, it was just, stupidly, this: Nolly will cut my free drinks if I’m not back in time to mop.

The cart rolled into the great emerald wild of Argentwold, and behind it, the gate closed.

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