Read on for an excerpt of RADIANT (Book 1 of the Tower Trilogy) by Karina Sumner-Smith, out September 23rd!
Curled in a concrete alcove that had once been a doorway, Xhea watched the City man make his awkward way through the market tents, dragging a ghost behind him. Magic sparkled above his head like an upturned tulip, deflecting the heavy rain and letting it pour to the ground to trace a circle in the puddles at his feet. He was, of course, watching her.
It was not his attention that had caught Xhea’s notice, nor his poor attempt to blend into the crowd, but the ghost tethered to him with a line of energy more felt than seen. The dead girl couldn’t have been much older than Xhea herself—sixteen, Xhea supposed, perhaps seventeen—and she floated an arm’s span above the man’s head like a girl-shaped helium balloon.
For fifteen minutes the man had circled, pretending to shop. As if a City man had any use for reclaimed nails, half rusted and pounded straight; for prayer flags, or charms of electrical wire and bone. What was it, Xhea wondered, that made the ghost-afflicted wait for the darkest, rainiest days to seek her out? She snorted softly, a sound without care or pity. They didn’t want to be seen with her, that was the truth of it, as if her very presence left a shadow that wouldn’t burn away.
As she waited, Xhea tied a coin to the end of a braid of her hair with a bit of tattered ribbon. The coin was an old and dirty thing she’d found in the abandoned shopping corridors that wound beneath the Lower City. Once it would have bought her bread, cigarettes, a warm place to sleep. Now it was nothing but a bit of shiny metal that watched with the pressed eyes of a dead Queen, its only magic a sense of the past that hung about it like the faint scent of something sweet.
She had started braiding another length of dark hair before the man made the decision to approach. He walked toward her with his head down, as if a slumped posture might make him any less conspicuous, as if half the market didn’t watch him go. He came to stand before her narrow shelter and stared without speaking, the heavy rain falling between them like a beaded curtain.
Xhea eyed him in silence: his polished shoes, dotted with water; the neat line of his jacket; the monogrammed cuffs that peeked from his jacket sleeves. Only the clean cut of his tailored pants was marred, and that by the slow curl of his fists within the pockets. He straightened, pulling himself upright as if to get every intimidating inch from his average-sized frame.
She held his gaze as she pulled a cigarette from one of her oversized jacket’s many pockets and placed it against her lips. From another pocket she drew forth a single match, thankfully dry, which she struck with a practiced flick. Cigarette lit, Xhea leaned back against the concrete.
“Well?” the City man said.
She exhaled. “Well what?”
“Aren’t you going to help me? I have a ghost.”
“I can see that,” Xhea said, and returned the cigarette to her lips. She smoked in contented silence.
“Hey,” he said at last, shifting his weight. “I’m talking to you.”
“I can see that too.”
“I was told,” he said, as if she were far younger than her apparent years and dreadfully slow, “that you could help people with ghosts.”
Xhea snorted and flicked away a bit of ash. “Try asking nicely. Try saying ‘please.’ You’re the one who needs help here, not me.”
The man looked from her braid-tangled hair to her dirt-crusted nails and all the mismatched layers of clothing in between, disbelief plain. “Look, I came here—” he started, then shook himself. “What am I doing?” he muttered. He turned away, running his hand through his thinning hair as he walked. Yet his ghost remained, her tether stretching: a clear indication that the man would return.
Xhea smoked slowly, watching the ghost. She floated, serene, eyes closed and legs folded beneath her, lost in dreams. The ghost’s hair was pale, her skin paler still, each appearing in Xhea’s black-and-white vision as a faintly luminescent gray. The ghost girl’s dress was more vivid, hanging in loose folds that appeared almost to shimmer, the fabric untouched by rain.
Red, Xhea guessed, from the energy it exuded. She rather appreciated the contrast.
What was their story, she wondered. Too young to be his wife, unless his tastes ran to the illegal; too calm to be the victim of a hit and run or the unlucky bystander in a spell gone awry. His daughter, maybe. How touching.
Had illness taken her? But no, these were City folk, through and through. Illness was rare in the City, true disease rarer still, health and long life all but guaranteed by their magic. Suicide, then? Perhaps her father had killed her.
Xhea exhaled a long breath of smoke as the man again approached. Come to my temple, she thought to him mockingly. Three walls of concrete and one of rain; a cloud of tobacco for incense. Come pray for your ghost.
He stood before her for a long moment, staring. “You’re too young to be smoking,” he said. The words were slow, tired: an admission of defeat.
“And she’s too young to be dead.” Xhea nodded toward the ghost that once more hovered above his left shoulder. The coins in her hair clinked with the movement. She had to give him this: he didn’t flinch as she gestured toward his ghost; didn’t look above his head as if her attention might have brought the invisible to light.
“So tell me,” Xhea said. “Why do you want my help? Do you want her gone, your pale ghost? Exorcised? Maybe there’s something you need to say to her—or something you think she has to say to you?”
The man watched her in an angry, uncomfortable silence.
“Ah.” Xhea sighed. “Don’t know, do you? Just came to see what the freak girl had to offer.”
It was only then that she realized how thin his umbrella of magic had become, fading in his exhaustion, or that the circles beneath his eyes were dark as bruises. She squelched what little sympathy she felt. Even if he had lost everything, if everyone he loved had died, he still had magic, a gift of nature and blood. With that power, doors opened to his touch; vendors could sell him food; the City acknowledged he existed. He was, in a word, normal.
Unlike Xhea. There was no brightness in her, no magic, only a dark stillness in the depths of her stomach; an ache, like hunger, that she could only think of as absence.
“I’ll tell you what,” she said. “I’ll take your ghost for a day, maybe two, give you a little break.” No more flickers at the edges of his vision, or the sense he was being watched; no more whispers half-heard—or whatever it was he could sense. Each felt their haunting a little differently. “If that turns out okay, we can discuss something more permanent.” Or she could offer him more temporary arrangements, and more, turning his indecision into months of steady business. She suppressed a grin.
“How much,” he said brusquely.
“A week’s worth of food chits, and five hundred unshaped renai.”
“You’d use less to get a taxi across the City.”
“But unshaped?” he asked, confused that she didn’t want the renai—the magical currency—to be spelled to her own power signature, but raw. “Why?”
“I didn’t ask how you got a ghost,” Xhea said. “Don’t ask what I’ll do with the payment.”
His umbrella flickered and failed, and the rain poured down on his unprotected head. Xhea watched as, to her eyes, his hair and clothing changed from mottled grays to tones of charcoal and black, the fabric slicking to his shoulders and arms and the slight paunch at his waistband. Water dribbled in his eyes and trickled from his nose as he stared.
“What they say about you is true, then,” he said, his voice low. “You are a freak. No magic in you at all.”
Xhea ground her cigarette against the wet concrete, watching the ember sizzle and dull to black. A line of smoke rose upward, vanishing.
“You’re the one standing in the rain.”
A deal was struck. The rest was only negotiation.
Reprinted with permission from Talos (Skyhorse)
In the City, magic guarantees a life free from illness, hunger and hardship – unless, of course, you have none. Without so much as a spark of bright magic, Xhea can’t buy breakfast, can’t open doors, can’t even tell the City’s systems that she exists. Yet she has a single gift: an ability to see ghosts and control the tethers that bind them to the living world, which she uses to scratch out a bare existence in the ruins below the floating Towers.
Xhea thought she knew everything about ghosts – that is, until she takes possession of Shai, the ghost of a girl who hasn’t died, and finds herself hunted through the Lower City’s dangerous streets. Shai’s body was stolen, her ghost is running scared, and Xhea finds herself trapped between two powerful entities that will stop at nothing to regain the girl, dead or alive. For Shai is a Radiant, a rare person whose ability to generate massive amounts of magical energy make her part mint, part power plant, even as the magic destroys her from the inside out.
But soon even the manhunt for the living ghost is eclipsed by the strange power that Shai’s presence brings to life in Xhea: a magic dark and slow, like rising smoke, like seeping oil. A magic whose very touch brings death.