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"Before my first sunset in Zhou, I was insulted; stripped of currency, clothing, and dignity; and left for dead in a puddle. I have since been told I was fortunate to escape so lightly." —Abd al-Hazir, Xiansai Chronicles
Smiling into the rushing wind, Jia leapt from a chimney and fell toward the jagged tiles of the gambling house's roof. Her dagger bumped lightly against her lower back. In ten minutes, she would use it to kill a man. In a second, she would have to deal with the prospect of landing.
None of that mattered right now. She was flying.
Zhou was a ten-mile-long, mismatched jumble of elegant stone temples and shanty taverns, fortified towers and sagging tenements, all crammed into the cradle of the Guozhi mountain range. Since roads were seen as a waste of precious space, it was more a city of hidden, crooked alleys than streets and plazas. Anything could happen to the careless down there, and often did.
Jia rolled as she landed, her padded armor taking the silent brunt of the impact, and was back on her feet and sprinting in half a second. Up here, she could choose her own path. No dead ends or last stands. Just miles of rooftops and freedom in all directions. She could pretend that she had no obligations. That she was free to go anywhere.
Windows flashed by, the sour-faced gamblers within too occupied by their losing hands to notice her. However, Elder Brother Qiu, sitting by the man he was assigned to kill, did. He raised an irritated eyebrow at her recklessness, and she waved cheerfully. Being spotted by members of the Tenth Family didn't count as a failure of the test. They were trained to see things.
Nine Great Families ruled Zhou, each named for the industry it dominated within the city. The Tenth Family had no name other than its number. Its monopoly was crime: theft, smuggling, vice, and murder.
The family had raised Jia since she was an infant. She wasn't the only one. Most strays and foundlings who survived Zhou's deadly streets ended up on the Tenth's metaphorical doorstep sooner or later. The Tenth Family gave these orphans food, a bed, and useful training. And when they turned eighteen, it gave them a choice.
They could leave with a generous bag of gold and choose their future. A great deal of the world was not Zhou, and there were many places where a young man or woman with a unique education could find a happy life.
Or, they could join the Tenth Family. And kill.
Jia had chosen the latter but wanted the former. She wanted to leave, to explore the world, but the Tenth was under attack. She couldn't abandon her family.
She sprang off the edge of the gambling house into the nestled stonework of Tong-Shi's temple1. It bristled with spirals of statues and intricate friezes, and was as good as a staircase to the right feet.
She climbed, rising above the squalid patchwork of the city, her boots scuffing across upraised palms and bowed heads, her fingertips trailing over the stone parables showing Xiansai's fifty-nine noble gods seducing, betraying, and fighting one another. Jia paid no attention. The Tenth had little use for the complicated theology of its homeland, with one notable exception.
Jia paused at the frieze depicting The First Theft. A statue of the laughing little god Zei ran across the sky, pursued by the wrath of the heavens.
"The trickster Zei crept among the sleeping gods," Elder Sister Rou had told the orphans of the Tenth many years ago. "With clever hands and a wide grin, he stole from his brothers and sisters until his pockets jingled. Then he scampered across the black sky, spilling jewels in his haste to escape. Most of them stayed where they were, becoming stars, but some blazed to the ground, shattering into a million pieces…"
Legend said that Zei was caught and banished from the heavens until he returned every stone. A thousand stories began that day, each more preposterous than the last. Xiansai worshiped fifty-nine gods, but it only loved one: Zei, the grinning trickster who fooled emperors, seduced river goddesses, and traveled the world disguised as a humble jeweler.
The thumbs of countless luck-seeking orphans had rubbed the head of the fleeing god almost smooth. Jia passed hers across his gleaming scalp and ran down a stone gutter into the fog of sweet wood smoke and acrid steam that hung over Zhou like a blanket.
Minutes later, she crouched on the edge of a roof, waiting. Li, thirteenth heir to the great Builder family, staggered out of a tavern below, supported by a prostitute who wouldn't be smiling if she knew what he had done to six of her sisters. Jia reached for her dagger…
… just as six Landholder thugs spilled from the alley. Li shouted, drew his fine dueling sword in a silver blur, and shoved the woman at them to buy time. A Landholder impatiently ran her through and pushed her aside. She crumpled, sightless eyes turning toward the sky.
One of the Landholders lunged. Li batted the blade away with his own and slapped the would-be assassin, laughing. The thugs charged together, and Li gave ground, his sword darting about to deflect their clumsy slashes. None of them spared another glance for the fallen woman.
Jia realized that she had drawn her dagger. She stared at it. Her trainers had told her she was ruled by her passions. She took a deep breath.
She was here for only one death. Waiting was the best strategy. The Landholders might kill Li for her. Then, they'd go drinking to celebrate, and laugh and dance, and the woman would still be dead.
Jia sighed, then sprang into the melee below.
In the lowest level of the Shifting Estate2, Stepfather Yao laid a cup of steaming tea carefully before Jia.
"Drink," was all he said.
It was a dark liquid in a plain porcelain cup. It was rumored that the tea tasted faintly (and briefly) of cinnamon for those who had failed their test. The rumor was stupid. No one who failed was allowed to leave the Stepfather's office alive.
She exhaled sharply and gulped it down. It tasted like cinnamon.
"That was a foolish thing you did," said Stepfather Yao, folding his hands over his considerable belly. "Seven men are dead. I just asked for one."
Yao was not soft, despite his appearance; Jia had seen him break the back of one of Jagged Liang's watchmen with a single blow. The Stepfather was second only to the leader of the Tenth, the grim and silent Broken Man. She put her hands on the desk between her and Yao so she could glare at them if they trembled.
"That woman," she said, knowing that the observers had told him everything, "I could have saved her before Li butchered her like the others, and the Landholders killed her for no reason."
"One of them did," Stepfather Yao corrected.
"The others didn't punish him. They barely even noticed."
"No," Stepfather Yao said, eyes narrowing. "But they were not your assignment."
"I did what I—" she began. Stepfather Yao slapped the desk.
"They were not your assignment!"
"I don't care!" Jia shouted. "The Great Families war in the streets like it's a game! The woman worked for us, Stepfather. She was family, and they killed her!"
Stepfather Yao folded his hands.
"And so," he said, all traces of rage gone, "you jumped into the middle of a sword fight with only a dagger, and killed seven men."
"Six," she said. "Li tripped over one of the Landholder corpses and broke his neck."
"Amazing," Yao said. "But careless. There were so many witnesses."
A stone hand closed over Jia's heart. Being seen on her first mission meant failure, regardless of the circumstances. Failure meant the tea she had just drunk was poison.
"But somehow, none of them saw you," Stepfather Yao said, smiling. "Congratulations, Little Sister."
Jia melted into the chair, dizzy with relief.
"Thank you, Stepfather."
"And if you are ever that reckless again, 'punishment' will be too gentle a term for what will happen to you. You must understand that we are at war with Jagged Liang, and every soldier is needed…"
Jia straightened as Yao spoke of obligations, distracted by… something odd. The Stepfather's office was a small but lavish room, with the desk between them, a cabinet, and a doorway in the left wall, leading to the Stepfather's private
chambers. She could have sworn she'd felt a breeze…
She blinked. A bony old man in threadbare robes and battered sandals shuffled out of the doorway, sniffing the air, his wispy beard quivering. He noticed her, nodded gravely, and crossed over to the cabinet, quietly smacking his lips.
After selecting an especially fine teacup, he surveyed the room with the gentle confusion of a guest wondering where his host kept the sugar.
Jia glanced between Stepfather Yao and the old man. Was she supposed to ignore him? Rise to greet him? Was this another test? Was she failing it?
Annoyance flashed across Stepfather Yao's face.
"What in the name of all the Hells are you looking at?" he said, turning around. His jaw dropped at the sight of the elderly intruder happily spooning cubes of crystallized burrower venom into a teacup.
1Tong-Shi is the father god of the Xiansai pantheon. He is believed to be omnipresent but not omniscient; this means that he is generally depicted with a somewhat overwhelmed expression.
2The Shifting Estate is the bastion of the Tenth Family and rumored to teleport about the city. In reality, the Tenth uses many "Shifting Estates," but encourages and embellishes the rumors whenever possible.