A Deal with the Devil
Book Preview: The Queen of Days by Greta Kelly
The Queen of Days is an heist and hijinks adventure about a crew of thieves and a time-eating demon who team up to steal an ancient statue before it can resurrect a fallen god…
Of all the times I’d been arrested, this was the only time I’d gotten pinched on purpose. I reminded myself of this in a vain attempt to keep my spirits up, as I squinted around the dank underbelly of the Cothis City Code Hall. I picked at my ale-soaked trousers, trying to ignore the way the heat from too many bodies made sweat trickle down my back.
Kai’s head lolled my way, as he shifted on the bench. He exhaled a dainty snore sending a puff of day-old breath straight into my face. I turned away, eyes watering, and stifled the urge to hit him. Kai was my oldest friend, and one hell of a fighter in a tough spot, but the damn fool could be careless as sin. Great Below, what kind of self-respecting criminal fell asleep mid-job? Especially as strange a job as this one was shaping up to be.
Our patron had ordered us to get arrested on this day and by this precinct. It was Kai’s bright idea to start the bar fight, and once that thought filled his empty head, he went at it like a raging bull. I ran a hand over my whiskers. At least no one had been injured. Well, permanently.
I felt a mirthless kind of smile hitch my lips as I looked past the dozen sleeping bodies of my fellow inmates, past the brown mudbrick walls etched with the Codes of Law up to the ceiling. There was no artificial light in the cell, for the obvious reasons that drunk criminals plus fire equals one big bloody mess. The only illumination came from a shaft of moonlight shining through a metal grate in the ceiling on the far end of the room.
Ostensibly it was there for ventilation, but the almost-summer air was so soupy breathing it in felt like drowning. While the air might have been a touch fresher beneath the grate, the laws of general assholery prevented anyone from sitting beneath it: namely that every few hours some jackal-cursed idiot up above would stop there to take a piss.
Through the grate’s metal bars, I could just make out the Great Spear shining mockingly in the sky. By the height of the constellation, I knew it was well after midnight. Which meant I’d been in this hole for seven fucking hours. I closed my eyes, letting my head thud against the wall, and cursed the patron in every language I knew.
It was his damn fault I was here wasting valuable time that could have been spent planning. Instead I was stuck in a jail cell, waiting for some legendary fixer. A woman who could kill the empress in front of the whole court and get away with it. A demon who could bend the nature of the world—if you were the kind of idiot who believed such talk.
And I wasn’t… Usually.
Urgh. It was almost insulting. My crew, the Talion, was young, but we were more than capable of stealing some old statue from the governor. Given the personal history we had with the rat, we probably would have done the job for free. Well. Most of us, anyway. But the patron had his own ideas, his own very specific time line, and this one annoying caveat: either the Queen of Days joined the crew, or the job was off.
I sneered as the words rattled around my skull. Queen of Days. The name practically screamed incompetence. And not the kind of incompetence that the real professionals rolled their eyes at and tolerated because, what’s one more kid playing in the sandbox to them? It’s the kind that gets a person knifed and tossed in the nearest canal.
Except that the stupid nickname aside, the woman got results. She single-handedly robbed the Sala Antiquities Museum three months ago. And last year she breached the Bastion to bust out four men. And the Bastion was in the middle of the godsdamned ocean, an island guarded by a fleet of patrol ships from both the water and the air. She’d have had to scale nearly seven hundred feet of sheer cliff to even reach the prison. And that was after the twenty-some-mile swim across open and unforgiving ocean.
She was good. Damn good. And her insistence that we meet in a jail cell could only mean she was connected to the codekeepers. Well connected too. But who was she? Where did she come from? No one knew.
When my family still ruled Cothis, there hadn’t been a single whisper about her. Five years later, I returned home to find people speaking of her in hushed, almost reverent tones. Lunacy.
But it was the kind of lunacy I could use. The kind that wouldn’t only get me out of this cell but secure the biggest score anyone in this cursed kingdom had ever heard of.
I opened my eyes, staring at the closed cell door, straining my ears for the sound of footsteps. According to the patron, the Queen of Days would be in these jails tonight. All I had to do was wait, and she would find me.
He’d been characteristically sketchy on the details—one of the many reasons my crew didn’t like working for him. But the way he’d arranged all this didn’t really matter to me. Afterall a payoff this big was worth the petty indignity of jumping through the old man’s hoops. Anyway, he probably had a codie or three on his payroll, too.
I shook my head mirthlessly. The Empress’s codekeepers were supposed to be righteous and true. As upright and just as the Codes of Law handed down to us poor mortals by the god Enkaara so many eons ago. Bullshit. Here in Cothis, many, many miles from the capital and the empress, the codekeepers were hardly better than any other street gang. Just better funded.
Still, I would have given anything to have a codie on the take. Anything to get out of this cell and into some dry clothes. The agony of staring at nothing but a closed door was making me itch. I stretched my neck from one side to the other, coaxing a few satisfied cracks from my spine. The pops were so loud, I almost missed the sound of the door shivering against its hinges.
I turned waiting to hear a key scrape against the lock.
I shook my head. I must be more tired than I—
My thoughts collided with a wall of silence. A silence that crept out from the darkness beneath the door on a whisper of frigid air that scoured the cell. Impossible. Cothis was never cold. But goose bumps pimpled my skin. My heart beat too loud in my ears, as all sound retreated outside. And inside… Kai stopped snoring. The men around me went still. Not a single murmur. Not even a breath.
A metal tang electrified the air. There was something primal about it. Like the scent of spilled blood or rotting flesh. It was a smell that should have been identifiable. But what should have been careened face-first into the floor as the hairs on the back of my neck rose in mute horror. Because someone—something—was behind me.
Slowly, like dread had filled my joints with sand, I turned.
A figure stood at the far end of the cell. I couldn’t make out its—no, her—face, but I got the impression of a tall, slight woman. She leaned against the back wall, watching. Assessing. After a moment that stretched into hours, she straightened and stepped into the shaft of light.
Moonlight flashed against the planes of her silver mask. Black mesh screened the eyeholes, transforming her face into a floating silver skull. More black fabric covered her body, from her hood to the tips of her black leather boots. But it did nothing to soften her figure as she moved. Looking like a collection of sharp angles, she prowled forward, stepping silently around the sleeping men.
She stopped two precise feet from my knees, tilted her head to one side. “Balthazar Vadalen?”
All moisture evaporated from my tongue at the sibilant sound of my name on her lips. I nodded.
“You wish to obtain my services?”
I managed another nod, the small movement enough to shake words lose in my brain. “What did you do to them?”
It seemed to take her a moment to understand the question, for she paused before looking down at the people around her. Had she only just realized they were there? “They sleep.”
“Yes, but how?” My eyes narrowed when she failed to reply. “I need to know that my friend will be all right. Did you use some kind of gas?”
“Your friend is in no danger. He sleeps. When our business is concluded, he will wake.”
“Well that’s me comforted,” I grumbled, trying not to breathe too deeply lest whatever she used on the others start to affect me. And I was sure she’d used something. I was the only person sitting upright—everyone else was either slumped over, like Kai, or laying on the floor. I’d spent enough time with Zee to know that some gases crept low to the ground. Couldn’t remember why, but that wasn’t important.
I filed the thought—and the hope that Zee could re-create the compound from the traces on our clothes—for later. We were here for business after all. “So, here’s the deal, I need you to—”
She made a sharp cutting motion with one hand. “Not here. Come.” She turned away, gliding to the door.
I knew the door was locked. Great Below, I’d seen a half dozen men try to break it down, the others egging them on with equal parts hilarity and hope. But somehow I wasn’t surprised to see the handle yield beneath her gloved hand. The door slid open on silent hinges, like they obeyed this woman with bated breath and quiet terror.
She floated through the door, her presence tugging at me like I was no more than a dog on a leash. The indignity made me bridle, and I let it bloom into anger. I was tired and bored and not paying attention. She wasn’t a demon, just a clever woman who’d probably turned the sewer grate into a trapdoor. I’d assumed she had contacts in the Code Hall. Here was the proof.
I shook my head and pulled myself up, feeling more relaxed— more in control—than I had since I’d gotten arrested. But… the idea of leaving Kai behind still made me pause. If the meeting went south, I might need backup to get out of here. Then again, Kai’s idea of help wasn’t always that helpful, I thought, catching a whiff of my damp clothes. Silently promising to return, I smiled at my still-sleeping friend and walked out of the cell.
The guard station outside was a perfect circle of slimy gray stone with a half dozen closed doors studding its thick walls at even intervals. A rusted iron chandelier with three tiers of lit candles hung over a wide wooden table. Cards and food and half-empty tankards were abandoned on the table’s scarred surface. No guards, though. Only the woman.
An unaccountable desire to laugh welled up my throat, as she sat at the center of the table. For all that she was dressed like a burglar, she held herself with the dignified air of a noble. With folded hands she looked like she was waiting for a not particularly important meeting to begin. Shaking my head, I took the seat opposite hers.
Something akin to a companionable silence spread out between us, and in the light of the chandelier, I studied her mask. It was truly a masterpiece. Unlike the featureless oval of many a masquerade mask, this was precisely molded to glide over high cheekbones, a long, slightly upturned nose and angular jaw. The metal was etched with intricate scrollwork that accentuated the wide catlike eyes, and the mask’s full lips were painted in black lacquer. They tilted up at one corner in the slightest hint of a smile. But the impenetrable fabric hiding her eyes soured the tableau.
She brushed an invisible something from her sleeve and placed her gloved palms flat on the table. “So. Balthazar.”
“Please, call me Bal,” I said, leaning back in my chair, my stomach clenching as it’s uneven legs wobbled.
She inclined her head. “Bal. Why does the Talion require my services?”
I felt a muscle in my jaw tick. “To be honest, we don’t.”
“Then why are you here?”
“Because my patron—the man who commissioned this job— insisted you join the crew.”
She didn’t speak for a long minute. “And why does your patron require my presence?”
It was the same question I’d asked before taking the job. The answer still made no sense. “He says that you’re to be the ‘weapon of last resort.’”
“Ah. I see.”
I believed her. Something about the way she said it, the way her posture incrementally relaxed, made it clear that this answer made sense to her. Damn, did I want to ask her why, but the question would have to wait. My eyes swept the chamber, half sure that some codie would waltz in any second now. She might have them in her pocket, but I sure as hell didn’t. Time wasn’t on my side; I wasn’t going to let my ignorance be another advantage she could use.
“And your patron is sure this is the job he wishes to hire me for?”
“He was pretty damn sure,” I said, frowning. “Why?”
“There are several conditions to my employment. Two of them are that I will not work for the same person twice. Nor will I accept contracts lasting more than seven days.”
Suddenly the jumped-up name made sense. “So that’s where the title comes from? Queen of Days?”
The stilted way she spoke reminded me of an old elocution tutor I once had. She’d been a stuck-up old broad who came from the corporal punishment school of education. It was a real effort not to roll my eyes. “Well, the time frame won’t be an issue. As for your other condition? The patron insisted on your presence, so I’m assuming he’s aware that this is his one shot to use you.”
“What about me?”
“Are you sure that you require my presence?”
I rolled a few replies around in my mouth before settling on, “Yeah. I’m sure. That good enough for you?”
She graced me with a shallow nod. “What is the job?”
I sniffed. “In two days, the restoration of the Cothis temple will be complete,” I said, not bothering to hide my distaste.
Each island in the Kingdom of Ashaar had a temple dedicated to their city’s patron god. Every few generations, the old one was knocked down and a new one was built in its place, supposedly in veneration of the god’s glory. Nonsense, really. It was just a way to employ the faceless masses, keep them off the streets and overworked so they didn’t have time to dream of better lives.
“During the opening ceremony, Governor Paasch will consecrate a new idol to the god Karanis. We’ve been hired to steal the idol during the ceremony, but before it’s consecrated.”
Her back straightened vertebrae by vertebrae before stilling completely. It was the kind of readiness that hummed. Like she was the human equivalent of a wire slipped over an unguarded throat.
I smirked, enjoying the feeling of her surprise, and flashed my most feral smile. The plan was as daring as it got, not that my crew couldn’t handle the challenge. And if I was being honest, the brazenness was part of the allure. Governor Paasch had ruined our lives. He deserved what was coming.
“Who set the terms for this job?” she asked, her voice rough. “You? Or your patron?”
I frowned, thinking it was obvious: the man who paid me. “My patron.”
“Why? Why steal the idol during the ceremony? Why not before?”
The front two legs of my chair hit the floor with a thud. It wasn’t like these weren’t good questions. They were the exact ones I’d asked. But the way she was asking them, the intensity with which her voice echoed off the room’s rounded walls, put me on edge.
“According to my patron, the idol won’t be finished until right before the consecration. Would it be easier to steal beforehand, yes. But he’s not interested in an unfinished idol. He wants the real deal. And he doesn’t want to wait until after the ceremony.”
“Does it not seem unnecessarily dangerous?”
Of course it was dangerous. Crazy dangerous. And yeah, I’d have rather waited until after the ceremony, but, “He’s not paying us for easy.”
“I wish to meet him.”
I exhaled a hard laugh. “He thought you might.”
“He said you can come with me to deliver the idol after the ceremony. He won’t meet you before.”
“Clearly,” I grumbled. “So, are you joining us?”
She sighed, though the mask muffled the sound, transforming it into the papery rustle of moths in flight. She clasped her hands, elbows braced on the table. Her pointer fingers were pressed against her black lips. “I shall.”
“Good. We’ll cut you in on the take. Five percent for three days of work sound good?” I smiled innocently, ready for the outraged exclamation that would surely follow this measly offer.
“I do not require money.”
I felt my brows rise. “Then what do you require?”
“Tell me the names of your companions.”
“It’s a small crew,” I began, rolling with the change of subject
even though it made me want to hit something. I had a feeling nothing would be easy with this woman and a spiteful part of me wanted to refuse. The money, Bal. Just think of the money. “You saw my man Kai in the cell,” I said, nodding toward the open door.
“Kai? Ah, no. What are their full names?”
“Malakai Fanoak, though you’ll call him Kai unless you want to start a fight.”
She nodded once. “Who else?”
“Zeelaya Agodzi; she’s my cousin, and her husband Edik Agodzi.” When she didn’t speak, I bared my teeth in a small smile. “That’s it. Like I said, it’s a small crew.”
She watched me for several long moments, saying nothing. Eventually her hands parted in a small impatient gesture. “And. Who else?”
“I told you—”
My words banked as the candles in the chandelier waned. Water pebbled and dripped from the ceiling. Dragged out of earth and stone like the slow breaking of a dam. Tiny teardrops plinked on the table between us as if they were the steady thrum of a clock running out. The walls around me seemed to constrict, squeezing. Squeezing.
She knew. She knew about Mira.
Impossible. She wasn’t really part of the crew. I never let her do anything riskier than open doors or be a lookout. Never anything dangerous. She wasn’t part of the crew. My vision flickered, as an invisible finger scraped the inside of my skull.
What the hell was happening to me?
My lips twitched, moving of their own accord, ready to surrender the name of the one person in this world I’d give anything to protect. I bit down hard, tasting blood in my mouth.
Had the patron told her about Mira? That old bastard—he knew I did everything I could to keep her on the sidelines. Anger raced up my spine, and for one wild moment, I almost walked back into the cell and closed the door behind me.
Then I remembered the payday. Remembered all the good that money could do; the life I could give Mira if we succeeded. But only if the Queen of Days joined the crew. Only if we actually pulled this off.
Through gritted teeth I said, “Miraveena Vadalen.”
“My sister,” I spat. “And if you think you deserve one cent of her cut, you’re crazier than you look.”
“I told you; I do not want your money.”
I smacked my hand to the table, glorying in the pain that danced up my arm. “Then what do you want?”
I blinked. “You want time?”
“Yes. A month, to be exact.”
“You want a month of our time? And what do you expect us to do in that month?”
“Ah. You misunderstand. I do not mean that I want a month of your service. I want a month of your life. Thirty days you would have lived, which you will now surrender to me.”
The Queen of Days demands thirty days. It was like the first draft of a shitty nursery rhyme, I thought with a slight laugh. “You’re joking.”
She had to be joking. But she wasn’t. She was utterly, deadly serious.
“If you agree to work with me, you agree to die thirty days sooner than Creation intended.”
She was insane. Utterly cracked. No one could just lop off a month of a person’s life. She was no better than some dockside oracle claiming to read the future from a line on my hand and the gold in my pocket. I shook my head, struggling to dislodge a sense of total disbelief. What was she? Why would the patron insist on her participation? It was…
A good deal.
No wonder she had a reputation for doing crazy, impossible things. She was impossibly crazy, so risking her life was obviously no great hardship. It almost wasn’t fair, negotiating with a deranged person. But Cothis wasn’t built on fairness. If all she wanted was an impossible-to-keep promise, the more money for the rest of the crew.
Wasn’t an empty promise worth the life I could give my sister? My family?
I shrugged. “All right. Fine. A month of my life.”
She tilted her head to the side. “I think there has been another misunderstanding. Apologies. Ashaarite is not my native tongue, and I find it both cumbersome and imprecise. It is not only thirty days of your life which I require, but Kai’s, Zeelaya’s, Edik’s and Miraveena’s as well.”
“Not Mira.” The words sprang from my lips, splattering desperation on the walls. Hatred rushed through me, twisting and churning. This—this thing—wasn’t getting anywhere near my little sister.
She studied me quietly for some moments longer. “All right. Would you like to take on her debt, or prorate it among the rest of your companions?”
“I’ll take it,” I said without hesitation.
“Very well.” She extended a gloved hand. “Are we agreed?”
I stared at her hand. Surely she couldn’t mean for me to…
“I have to agree now? For all of them?”
“Yes. You are the leader of the Talion, after all. And my terms are, in my own opinion, rather unusual. No doubt they will be happy to acquiesce to our agreement if it means more money for them in the end.”
“No doubt.” I sneered as I said the words. The woman didn’t know the first thing about my crew. I might lead them, but I didn’t make decisions for them. Or… I didn’t used to.
Until this job.
Edik and Zee were still pissed I’d taken it without talking to them first—and for keeping the patron’s identity a secret. Kai was too, if I was being honest. He just didn’t want to admit to being angry with me. But Edik was convinced that this job was dead reckless. And when he and Zee found out who the patron really was?
The woman before me wasn’t the only one who wanted to have a few words with the old man. He had a knack for sending us into the worst kind of danger, which was exactly why I didn’t tell anyone he was involved.
I looked past her still-outstretched hand, struggling to find some kind of purchase. But all I saw was the plain stone walls of a jail cell.
“Will the codekeepers be helping us?” I asked, the idea hitting me with sudden hope. “Can you at least make sure they look the other way?”
If she could ensure their cooperation, or at the very least, their indifference, it would go a long way with my crew.
She paused, seeming to consider my question. “No,” she said finally, shattering all hope. “Not unless you wish to sacrifice more time.”
“Look, Catsuit, I can’t sacrifice their time as it is.”
“Ah. I see.” Her hand dropped. “Then our business is concluded.”
She rose, and the light seemed to dim with her. The light and my future.
If this woman left, so did the job. The payday. Any chance I had at getting Mira into a good school and getting her a home—not just a ratty ship cabin, but a real home—would be gone.
The ghosts of my parents’ voices slid through my mind. Their final desperate words begging me to take care of her. Of all of them.
“Wait.” My voice was soft, cracking with my resolve. But it was enough to make this demon of a woman pause.
And turn back to me.
Get your shit together, Bal. There’s no such thing as demons. Or magic. Just crazy-ass women in costumes.
“Fine. I’ll do it. I agree to your terms.”
When her hand rose again, I didn’t hesitate. I took it, grimacing, as a mosquito bit the back of my neck like a bad omen of things to come. “So what should I call you? Your Majesty Queen of Days?”
I felt her body shake through the shared link of our joined hands, and realized she was laughing. “Tassiel.”
“Tassiel?” The name rang against something in the deep recesses of my mind.
“Or Tass,” she said, “as you seem to prefer diminutives.”
“Tass it is,” I replied, though my preferences clearly counted for shit today.
About the Author
Greta K. Kelly is (probably) not a witch, death or otherwise, but she can still be summoned with offerings of too-beautiful-to-use journals and Butterfingers candy. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Warrior Witch Duology and The Queen of Days. Her writing has also appeared in Gizmodo, i09, Writers Digest and Nerd Daily. Greta currently lives in Wisconsin with her husband EJ, daughters Lorelei and Nadia who are doing their level-best to take over the world.