Juno Books

An Excerpt From Amberlight by Sylvia Kelso

[ Information on Amberlight ]


High moon over Amberlight, commanding the zenith, radiant, imperial, the city's fretted-ink porticoes and balconies gnawing that torrent of aerial snow. Domes shed it, men's towers drip with it. Under the vertical black rampart of the citadel wall, the qherrique outcrops glow to their depths with it: cabochon slabs girdling the hill's waist, broad as cathedral floors, zones of luminous milk slanted between ragged frames of earth and grass. Qherrique. Pearl-rock. Moon-stone. The core and crown of Amberlight.

Very little moon, though, and certainly no crown where Tellurith has haled her entourage from a wedding in neighborly Hafas House, leaving their guest-honor tarnished, their celebration scanted, by Khey's escape: apprentice shaper, House and cousin-kin: slid off in silk and silver festival gear. To drink and dice, shiftless cow, down in River Quarter. Among the thieves and stevedores.

Tellurith fumes as Househeads must, oaths seething behind clamped lips. Her retinue thins to a straggle as moonsnow on fragrant Uphill vines becomes a mackerel stipple of cobbles under the effluvium of cat-piss, rivermud, dockers' sweat. A spot for handwork, surely. Knives, at courtesy's best. And Khey, petted in the Craft-shops, sib to the qherrique, off here quick as a gutter-bred cat.

"Heugh!" At the fug in the first drinking-hutch Tellurith nearly chokes. "'Tender, fetch a light!"

Enough moon spills in that rabbit-door to catch her gold-worked leggings and frosted-pearl coat wings, the orb of a House-head's brooch, big as a baby's head, laid like intaglio snow on her breast. The dice-handler runs madly. In the weak tangle of oillight comes a sudden hush.

"Hold it up."

Bare bronze arms and cropped bronze heads and drinkflushed bronze faces shrink like cockroaches from the revolving yellow shaft. Rickety tables awash, leather bottles careened, hardly a cup in sight, let alone crystal-cut Uphill glass. Dice on the throwing patch, a scatter of copper sequined round them, stevedores on their heels, shoulder to shoulder--sweatacrid trousers and bare backs, men in with the rest. Only breastbands to show the difference. Tellurith shudders, delicately, and averts her eyes.

No sign, even among scuttlers jammed in the back alleydoor, of a Crafter's brocaded wedding gear. Tellurith wheels before she can curse. "Out!"

On to another den, and yet another, alley after alley, down to the heart of the docks. The yowl of River Quarter night is all about them now, and Tellurith feels the procession close up, youngsters feeling for the first time less than invulnerable. Exposed, outside the bulwarks of their House.

Masts curtsy sleepwalker slow, black geometry on pearl-infused sky. From backlit alley ends, through smoky tavern glow punctuated by lateworking prostitutes' heads, broad sheens of pearl and gold announce the river itself. As the last night-bird hurriedly clears their way of his hairplumes and glossily oiled shoulders, Tellurith pulls up.

"Rot and gangrene her!"

Wisely, the rest keep quiet.

If Khey has not surfaced yet, Khey may never show. And they are clear across River Quarter, trailing a far more costly bait through the attentive dark. No single woman, not kin, not Crafter's blood, can justify risking half a House.


Spinning on a heel, Tellurith stalks off; away from the river, up toward the business quarter, dead as stone by night. And her folk close up in earnest now, watching the flicker and dart of shadows by every barred door and symboldaubed entryway: for this is the riskiest part of River Quarter. This is the gangland zone.

Tellurith stiffens her back and sniffs. But she is not proud enough for stupidity. She twitches the brooch higher on her breast, and shouts into the street's moonshoals, "Craft!"

And she has an entourage. With the brooch, it is protection enough.

Warehouse canyons broaden. A traffic divider, a couple of scraggy trees appear. In a breeze off distant water their shadows dance, delicate moontheorems, on a symbol-spattered wall.

The graffiti subside. A moon sea spreads ahead of them, the polyhedron inaccurately termed Exchange Square. Below a rim of Uphill coffee houses, table umbrellas tilted like giant mushrooms to the moon, a sheet of flagstone slants up to the colonnade whose marble pillars stand pure as sugar-icing beneath its lustrous dome. The Guild-house of the Engravers' Craft.

Islanded in midsquare rise the worn marble seats and tall orange trees of the commerce grove. And halfway between grove and colonnade steps, a black pool marks the stones.

"Blight and blast!"

At Tellurith's heels, the entourage checks.

"Iatha. Your eyes are better than mine. Is that--"

Veteran cutter, impeccable House-steward, Iatha steps up beside her Head. Puckers her eyes into the flooding moon.

Sighs, and answers, "Yes."

The Housefolk attend with deepened respect to the ripeness of their leader's oaths.

Not our House. Not our affair. Common ground here, the clan-patrols must pass sometime. Someone, somewhere, must be able to look after it.

Tellurith draws breath for, Let's go. And stops.

Leave Khey, somewhere in River Quarter, her abandonment a burr in the back of a House-head's neck? Perhaps. But then calmly dismiss a drunk or damaged stranger, here in the borderlands, to a passedout sot's reward, or an innocent victim's further ruin?

Because even beneath the Guildhouse walls, an unconscious woman is not safe at night.

"Rot her cutting ear--whoever she is!"

Housefolk stream forward. Tellurith's long stride takes her quickly to the black puddle, so still upon the candescent stones. As the others press up she begins formally, "S'hur"--worker, fellow Crafter--"are you all ri--"

Nobody wonders at the check. Nobody has to ask. In the ripe moonglow every eye sees what she has seen. The sostill profile caught in the cloak's throat, whiter than the flags. Black cloak, black night-fall of hair. And the shadow of stubble, black, unmistakable, along the jaw.

This time, Iatha swears.

As profanity ebbs, her Head feels them shift behind her, already sure of her response. Not a woman in distress, were she just a Downhill stevedore. A man. An unknown man. If we would not wait for Khey, those movements say, and we would only salve a woman in this plight with reluctance and profanity, we will certainly not trouble for this.

Fifty paces to the colonnade, the Guild-house. Uphill. Sanctuary. A House retinue at risk. Tellurith gathers muscles for the stride. Looks back to the moon-cut profile, so still, so utterly helpless against that midnight span of cloak.

Grits teeth. Pauses. Works to make it sound cool, ironic, decisive.

"Well, s'hurre. We stopped to play Save-her. Suppose we can't back off, just because it's a dangle instead."

The spurt of ribald laughter quickly checks. Iatha snaps names. Two muscled slab-shifters come forward, ready to heft the victim by shoulders and feet. Tellurith bends warily, sniffing for the reek of Sahandan rice wine or raw barley spirit that would say, Drunkard. Derelict. Expendable. But there is only the acrid, spinechilling stink of fear and past brutality.

"Hmmh," she grumbles. "Must have been dirty business, whoever he is. Did you ever see such a great black horseblanket of a--"

And on a punched intake of air, stops.

At Iatha's gesture the porters check. Tellurith stands frozen. Then plumps suddenly on her knees, whispering, "Sweet Work-mother . . ." Her hand creeps out. One finger, reaching to the blackness on the cobbles, dares to touch.

Before she recoils half upright, snapping, "Desho, Zeana, run for a healer, quick! Thanno and Kyris, find something for litter poles--Iatha, come here!"

While the others twitch Iatha goes forward. Looks where Tellurith looks. Sucks in her own breath. But forewarned, she says almost at once, "'Rith, hold the messengers--may be no need."

Tellurith grunts. Reaches a hand, quaking, so finely, the great cabochon on her middle finger palpitates like living pearl, under the stubbled jaw.

Feels the faint, faint throb of cold skin against her flesh, catches her breath again and snaps fit to catapult her messengers, "Go, go! He's alive!"

"Mother's love," mutters Iatha, and Tellurith all but slaps her hand from the cloak. "We mustn't try to move him. It could be anything--he could be disemboweled!"

Iatha mutters obscenities to drown Tellurith's. The square, the emptily rising streets resound to the messengers' flight, and more than one among the Housefolk sits down with a bump as understanding spreads: that it is blood, dyeing whatever color the cloak had, saturating it, spreading far beyond the hump of body, which has laid that great black penumbra on the stones.

Tellurith does not try to conceive of its worse and worse origins. While Iatha swears she edges closer. At what, she realizes, is the unconscious man's back. Looking down over his shoulder at an incisive profile, long nose, bladesharp jaw, the shag of a blackavised man's stubble honing it, a surprisingly finecut mouth slack now against the back of a hand. Her own hand creeps out.

His flesh is chill. Not death yet, experience with cutting catastrophes tells her: wound-shock. Maybe--her fingers explore the black sheaf of hair--a bludgeon. Almost certainly a street gang, robbery and battery, if not worse. There is an oozing lump over his ear. There is a bruise, she realizes now, in his eye-socket. No River Quarter worker, to come up here. No decent house's man, to be out alone. No one from Amberlight, she speculates, re-assessing that black, black hair. But something, some impulse of Head-ship or simple human compassion, makes her ease a hand under his temple. Transfer his head, with infinite care though no little distaste, into her lap.

And if he bleeds on the brocaded wool under his cheek, she supposes she will find some recompense, if only in easing the closure of a life.

She is still crouched there when the pound and echo of feet announce her messengers, a stout physician panting, healer's satchel slung between her heralds, at their backs.

"Don't move him!" are her first clear words.

Tellurith elevates her nose. Subtle snub, subtler reminder of rank. The physician ignores it, shouldering her aside to chase the pulse. Then a grunt as stubble grates her palm. "Mff . . ."

"We have a litter." Tellurith glances to Thanno and Kyris, poised with a pair of umbrella shafts threaded through someone's coat. "Shall we--"

"Not yet!"

With a flare of nostrils clear in the moonlight as with gingerly, fearful delicacy, she pries at the margin of the cloak.


"Gangwork." The physician awards their squeamishness a more forceful nostril flare. "Hereabouts, s'hurre, what'd you expect?"

Tellurith looks up at the Guildhouse colonnade. Hands still busy, the physician snorts.

"They've hunted up here last year and more. Take more than a Crafthouse to frighten them after dark." Slum-wise, she does not ask, And what is an Uphill House-head doing hereabouts? Tellurith watches those deft hands peel the cloak from a wiry, snow and bruisemottled back, and does not ask either. Perhaps, still masked by the prone position, he really has been disemboweled.

"Stripped him, of course." The weariness of hated custom. "If it's good, they'll take the clothes--"

Not this time. Shirt, undershirt, possible overtunic are wadded under him, ripped margins of bloody rag. And the ruins of trousers, wound about two very expensive boots.

Tellurith's stomach is still rolling when the physician shifts place with an almost froggish hop. "Get water," she growls, slicing some blade between the hobbled ankles. "Take the cloak. Stop spewing, you. Haven't you ever seen a rape?"

"Mother's eyes--!"

It has been yanked out of Tellurith. Hunkered close over him, the physician shoots her one sour glance.

"They do it, yes, to a mark that's pretty. Or fights too much." Her steady hands ease the wrecked trousers clear. "Probably outland." A glance at the bloodpatched but elegantly soft, buckled--gold-buckled--boots. Another glance up to the lake of darkness that has spread from under the bruised, black-caked thighs. "Maybe not just the men, either. I've known them use a mark's own sword."

Tellurith feels her shoulders sag. "If he's past help--"

"For the Mother's sake! He's alive!"

And, Tellurith deciphers that savagely outthrust jawline, I am a healer. While he lives, I will try to thwart their butchery. I will fight.

"What can we do?" Tellurith asks.

Hasty footfalls announce Zetho, selfappointed aide with a receptacle alarmingly like the sacred bronze beggar's bowl from the grove. The physician nods gratefully. Eyes her patient, and hesitates.

"The Mother's throw, whatever we try. If we wash him and he gets colder--if we try to move him without--if I try to work on him without seeing the damage--"

The household is quiet. The city lies silent round them, Amberlight couched like her gangs, aware and waiting, under the pearl flood of the moon.

The physician stiffens herself. "You, you, you, you. Take his feet--his knees--his shoulders--his arms." She settles her own hands at his hips. "When I give the word, we turn him. Gentler than you ever moved one of your poxed qherrique slabs. Onto his right side."

As those blunt fingers edge under his hipbone, Tellurith remembers her own position. "What shall I . . ."

"Keep cushioning him. Don't let go!"

More delicately than any newdivided slab of pearlrock, with infinitely small loosenings, supplings of caked blood and rigored muscle, they ease him over, the team working as at a motherface to the physician's commands. As they steady him while half-a-dozen coats are hastily wadded at his back, the head in Tellurith's lap moves. Faintly, he groans.

"Careful, for Kearma's bloody love!"

The physician's god is invoked again, less frantically, as Iatha drapes her festival coat across his torso, while with oaths at the water's chill, at the flap of a wind-blown torch annexed from the Engraver's House, the physician begins to lave his groin.

"At least," she growls, "they didn't geld him too."

Tellurith shudders at the thought of mutilation atop the rest. The dark head in her lap shifts. Without thought she cups his face, murmuring, as to a daughter, "Keep quiet. Keep still."


Zetho withdraws the bowl. Tellurith reads, Trouble, from the syllable. One hand on a marble-white, marblecold haunch, the physician glowers.

"Most of this is a stab. Right in the artery. Hadn't left him spread out, and on top of his clothes . . ." A graphic sickle-sweep of one hand. "I've tight-wrapped that. But there's a mess inside too, Kearma flay them." The hand flicks above that black-crusted haunch. "I need to look. It might . . ." Her lips set tight. "He can't stay here in any case. But if we move him, and that thigh artery opens--or he starts to bleed inside . . ."

Tellurith's mouth is dry. Ridiculous, for some stranger, some unknown, a man. More ridiculous to ask, in surety of an answer, "What can you do?"

The roll of eyes retorts, I can kill him out of hand. But the lips tighten. Before she says, dourly, "If the inner stuff is--mendable--I can plug him up."

One or two younger women cannot control the laugh. Iatha lashes at them. Undistracted from the silent proviso, Tellurith prods, "But?"

"But I may start a haemorrhage doing it. Or when we move him--that may happen anyway."

Tellurith holds those eyes, colorless in the browshadow. Looks away, amid her shadow-and-silver folk. Across the lake of moonlacquered stone, up to the airandsilver colonnade, higher. Where the great shields of the qherrique glow, luminous, alive, slabs of breathing moonstone, to the breathing of the moon.

She is Househead for more than inherited rank, more than fifteen years good decision-making, more than a superlative cutting ear. As she learnt in her very first rapport, as she fine-tuned the skill with polisher and shapingtool, and tempered it in those draining moments at the motherface, she listens for the oracle whence those decisions came.

And from the life and blood of Amberlight the qherrique's answer comes to her. Sure, inexplicable as the assent of a willing mother-face; the signal no Head, no cutter, no shaper, not the most novice polisher can mistake.

If we do nothing, he dies anyway. And it matters, if he dies.

She drops her eyes to the physician's face and says quietly, "In the Workmother's hand."

It is the cutter's invocation. The physician's expression says she recognizes more than that. Before she lifts her own hands to re-invoke Kearma, and begins.

They have to ease him on his face again. To mound clothes under his hips. To hold, with profane and breathheld delicacy, his arms, his torso, his restraddled legs. "If he jerks around he'll bleed for sure." Kneeling between his thighs, instruments in hand, she scowls up his back at Tellurith.

"Keep hold of his head. If he starts to move--talk to him. Just might keep him quiet."

Tellurith's own breath comes short. Not mere human concern now. Behind her quickened heart-beat she can feel the weight, the focused attention, almost the sentience of Amberlight.

She cups the drowned face lightly as a newpolished statuette. Trying for composure, says, as at the motherface, "Yes."

Meaning, Go.

When the cold water starts to bite, he does move. Twitches. A gasp. Moans. Stronger flexure of the muscles as cold instruments replace cold water, probing deeper into his vital, his damaged and doubly sensitive parts. The physician mutters. Prayer. Endearment. Curse. The head in Tellurith's lap heaves before she can catch it, his body jerks as he cries out.

"Quiet, quiet, keep still now, it's all right, just hold on . . ." Ridiculous, crooning like a mother with a beloved baby to a complete stranger, a man who may not even use her words. But she catches his head, whispering in the drowned ear, smoothing the paintense cheek, wiping sudden sweat from the nameless brow. "Quiet, keep quiet . . ."

And though his body transmits shock, protest, pain atop older pain, though he lets out strangled noises and twists his head spasmodically, violently in her lap, whether of words or her cutter's ability, something must come through.

Because whatever the physician does to him, though he cries out, he does not move.

Full dawn on Amberlight; Tellurith watches it in from Telluir HouseHead's apartment, hands propped wide on the balustrade.

The honeytinged Iskan marble is icy under her palms; shoulders hunched in mahoganybrown double wool, she is grateful for her festival coat. Fifty miles south, snow bleaches the shaggy Iskan ranges' spine, a drizzle of winter sure as the qherrique dust frosting her lapels. But the sky is celestial blue, freighted with blushing hills of cloud.


Iatha comes to her side. Qherriquetough, she has already bathed and changed for the day.

"He's out to it. Sleep-syrup should last till noon."

Tellurith's eyes lift slowly, sidelong. Across the House frontage, pinecone finials topping the central block's four-storey attic roofs, over the green mushrooms of garden treetop, the snake of demesne wall. Native scrub beyond is branded by a line of stony steps. A hundred feet above them, the Telluir qherrique answers sunshine, a moatwall of backlit pearl.

Iatha breasts the balustrade. Goes on equably, "If he still won't take it for anyone else, you could always book a spot--"

"In my schedule! Blast and blind--!"

As she spins from the balustrade Iatha's eyes go wide. Then she bites off a laugh.

"I've noticed," demurely, "that Telluir carries the Thirteen's cuttingload . . ."

Tellurith spins again, thumping fist on stone. The men's tower is tucked behind House block and center court, with the garden as buffer beyond. She could not see the glare of sun on its shutters' lacework if she did turn, but it burns her shoulder-blades.

"You block-cracker, you know quite well--!"

"Oh, ah, you've set up a week of it. Metal shippers, estate accounts. Moonmeet of the Thirteen. New cutter to try. Three statuettes--and one of 'em a king's--to tune. Bare compliments'll take a month. He's a bit of gangland flotsam. You're Head of Telluir House. Just tell me, 'Rith--did we pick him up, or not?"

Tellurith's jaw knots. She stares out over Amberlight.

Under the familiar frontage of distant Houseblocks, Khuss and Jerish to the right, Hafas away left, the valley opens between High and Dragon Spurs, fiftyfoot windmill vanes just beginning to swing along each crest. Turned on for the day-wind, they blur the squat stone towers. Already, downstairs, the visible veins of qherrique in the Househall are glossy with newfed light.

Sharply, Tellurith averts her mind. Stares lower, down past clan demesnes into the business zone. Warehouse, office, guild-house, coffee house. Inn. House of prostitutes.

From here the graffiti and the broken or boarded windows are invisible, leaving the city gemclear and immaculate for dawn. And below the frontier's battlezone sprawl the huddled humps and gaudy shrines and strangulated alleyways of River Quarter. Workers for the ships that come, upRiver, downRiver, trailing in like water-spiders on that glittering serpentine about the city's base. Hauling the silk and wool, the metal and timber, the multitudinous tribute to its one unique product that sustains, that recompenses Amberlight.


She tightens her fists on the balustrade.

"No, we couldn't have left him there. Or taken him to a hire-worker's hostel. Or expected the physician to heave him home. So, yes, we do have obligations. Have accepted obligations." A deeper breath. "I have accepted obligations. Tell Hanni. Noon. Fit it in the book." And as Iatha turns, face lost but shoulders grinning, she yells, "And find what he is, you lump!"

[ Top ]
[ Information on Amberlight ]

Copyright © 2008, Sylvia Kelso All Rights Reserved.

Juno Books
copyright ©2007