Merry Christmas to all our City of the Gods fans! Here is an exclusive preview scene from the next novel in our series. Contains MILD SPOILERS if you have not yet read City of the Gods: Guardian.

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            At first, the sudden influx of customers was greeted with enthusiasm by the barmaids in the Jolly Rajah. It had been a slow week, and each girl had felt the appraising gaze of Sergius lingering on her form, weighing her beauty and serving skill against that of the others. Whenever profits were slim, their tavern master preferred to lighten his staff rather than water his wine. The press of people was a reprieve; Sergius’s face reflected excitement rather than scrutiny.

            “Lili, Serena!” he called. “Take this table!” He waved the women, twin sisters, toward a group of seven men whose stylish suits were finer than those of customers the tavern generally entertained. The twins looked at each other and smiled.

            “I told you the expense of our new dresses would be worth it,” Serena said. She adjusted a bronze clasp which held a silk belt tightly around her slim waist. Her single, black, hair braid fell down over her left shoulder and almost reached the cinch of bright yellow material at her middle. Lili playfully tugged her sister’s plait.

            “I’ll wait to agree when I see their tips,” she said, her voice low. “Look at that one the rest are fawning over.” Lili pushed up the billowing purple sleeves of her own best dress to bare her forearms. Each of her wrists sported a bracelet of pretty beads threaded onto delicate leather laces. “Let’s find out if he’s really that important.”

            Lili grabbed a basket of shelled nuts and a large pitcher of wine while Serena threaded her fingers through seven mug-handles, bundling the cups into her body so as not to lose hold of them. She winked at her sister as she hugged herself, lifting and accentuating her bust. “Better yet, let’s find out if he’s got a lot of money.”

            Much to their disappointment, the men barely looked at them as they set down the food and drink. The fanciest one was quick to slide the bowl of nuts right in front of his own place, even as one of his companions made a futile grab for an almond. That empty hand retracted as its owner let out a frustrated moan and set his fingers to work rubbing a nose that was beginning to swell. The richly dressed leader of the group noticed his distress.

            “Out with it, Latonn. Who struck you?”

            Another of the seven, a scholarly type whose pale skin indicated little contact with the sun or wind, waved away the accusation. “No one hit him, Parham. He tripped over his own feet and ran into a pillar.”

            “I tripped because I was pushed,” sore-nosed Latonn said petulantly. “And I’m sure it was one by of those dirty slave tenders.”

            Several heads turned toward the strangers at the sound of this insult. Much of the Jolly Rajah’s clientele had some connection to the trade; it was not a place to voice any opinions against the industry.

            Serena quickly placed her hand on the injured man’s shoulder. “It’s just a bump. You’re still handsome enough. A few drinks will cheer you up,” she cajoled.

            “With everyone running mad in the streets today you have to expect an accident or two,” Lili chimed in, catching on to her sister’s attempt to defuse the situation. “What’s happening out there?”

            Before any at the table could answer, a strong clap of hands put an end to the sisters’ questions. It was a signal Sergius used if he felt his maids were spending more time flirting than serving. Serena and Lili immediately stepped away from the table and hurried back toward the kegs for more ale and wine as Sergius arrived.

            “There certainly is a wretched noise out there today,” Sergius remarked as he set down a fine tin of snuff before Parham. “Something to calm you, compliments of the Jolly Rajah.”

            Parham raised an eyebrow and picked up the decorative box. “This is a fine thing to find in such a . . . plain place.”

            Sergius grinned, not at all offended by Parham’s accurate assessment of the decrepit condition of the tavern. “I’ve always believed the quality of the stores more important than the state of the furniture. And if I ever need extra fire wood, I need only grab the nearest chair.”

            The rest of Parham’s retinue, except for sullen Latonn, laughed and nodded in agreement as their leader tried the snuff. Parham’s face squinched up for a moment before he smiled at Sergius. “I detect a hint of plum.”

            “That’s not what I smell.”

            Everyone at the table – save Sergius, who had already recognized the hostile voice and was bracing himself accordingly – turned toward the speaker.  His name was Dover, and he was well-connected to the goddess Lamasthu’s court. He was clean shaven, his short brown hair neatly arranged, and his hands clean. However, these respectable looks were contrasted by several sets of wrist manacles hanging heavy from his belt. The leather of a coiled whip that hooped over one shoulder and crossed his chest bore dark stains of blood. He pushed in next to Sergius and leaned over the table, placing his palms upon it and fixing Parham with a glare.

            “I smell a civvy,” he accused. “Why have you swaggered in here with your sad little flock?”

            Sergius took a step away from the table. He had no quarrel with Dover and wished to avoid taking sides if possible. He discreetly waved his right hand behind his back. One of his barmaids passed quickly by and pressed a short, blunt-ended club into his open palm.

            As for Parham, he reacted mildly, gazing at the unpleasant visitor tolerantly. “What do you want? If you can see that I’m a Civil Priest you must also know I serve the law. Take care to stay on the right side of what’s left of it.”

            Parham’s comrades chuckled at this witty warning but the angry man’s frown only deepened. “I know where the line is,” he said, straightening. His head turned toward the tavern door. Shouts from the street beyond it were growing louder. “Otherwise, I’d be having fun like them.”

            “No one’s stopping you,” said Latonn morosely. “I’m sure we can find you a bag so you can join the looting.”

            “I’m no looter!” Dover reached across the table and grabbed the front of Latonn’s robes, hauling him out of his chair. Cups upended. Spilled wine spurred two of Parham’s other men to scoot away from the table to avoid being wetted. Dover’s fist pulled back to punch; Sergius moved in with his club and struck him from behind. As Dover fell, unconscious, Parham waved his cup toward Sergius.

            “Nicely done. Perhaps we should send you out to sort the rest of – ”

            A tremendous boom, accompanied by a rain of splintered wood, interrupted Parham and knocked Sergius and anyone else on their feet to the floor. Smoke flooded into the tavern. The vapors were hot and white, but tinged with a green glow.

Sergius cursed and rolled away from two men who were tangled in a pile of splintered furniture. He heard some of his serving women screaming, but couldn’t see them in the chaos. But the floor under his knees and hands was still visible; he used the lay of the boards as a map to guide him toward the back of the building. He crawled quickly as cries of ‘fire’ went up behind him and someone’s hand hooked over the heel of his boot.

            Sergius cursed and kicked off the fingers that were slowing him down. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw that the priest was right behind him. Parham had a bemused look on his face.

            “Seems you were wise about buying disposable furniture,” he said.

            “C’mon,” Sergius grunted, hoping that there might be some reward for getting the important man out of the scene unharmed. They pressed on, making it into the kitchen. The smoke was thinner there. Sergius stood, noticed a chunk of wood sticking in his arm, and roughly extracted it. It was a piece of the club he had thumped Dover with. He threw the bloody shard down and pointed toward the door to the street. “That’s the way out.”

            Parham stepped toward the exit and opened the door cautiously. “Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t,” he said.

            Lili and Serena stumbled in. A crying Lili, blood oozing from a gash on her face, was bundled under Serena’s arm. They were headed straight for the door, which Parham pulled all the way open just in time for the women to tumble out. After a moment ticked by with no screams to indicate that they had met terrible deaths in the street, Parham shrugged and followed them out. Sergius emerged next, and shortly thereafter came a steady stream of tavern workers and patrons who had also found the back door. The alley behind the Jolly Rajah filled quickly. Sergius and Parham moved out of it onto the main street, where order had completely broken down. The men beheld a strange masquerade.

            Figures darted by wearing improvised masks to conceal their identities. Heads were tucked inside baskets with roughly cut-out eye holes. Scarves smothered faces like the wrappings of mummies. A woman sped by wrapped head to toe in one of the City’s flying eye banners. Whatever the costume, it was worn to confuse any pursuit. The oddly dressed phantoms carried pilfered sacks of food, casks of liquor, boxes spilling trade goods of all kinds. However, the spoils were not just mercantile. A small squad of armed Chin hustled a terrified group of ragged children from their realm away from the Slavers’ Temple. Sergius watched them escape as more explosions touched off in the neighborhood. He briefly wondered if the bombers, the slave stealers, and the looters all worked in concert, but dismissed that thought as he suddenly remembered that what was left of the Jolly Rajah might be burning down.

            He jogged around to the front of the tavern, coming to a relieved stop as he saw no inferno. Only a few smoldering sacks of grain flung helter-skelter still fed tiny flames. The front of the tavern, however, was a broken tumble of lumber. One of his better silver ale cups lay on the ground. He stooped to snatch it up before someone else did.

            “You! Drop it!”

            Sergius turned around and found the spear of a City Guardian aimed at his midsection. His eyes followed the weapon’s shaft and he saw it was wielded by a young recruit of Egyptos. Sergius rolled his eyes and held on to his serving mug.

            “It’s my own property,” he protested. The guardian shook his head and pressed the tip of his magical spear against Sergius’s chest.

            “That same lie spills from every tongue,” he said. A crackle of energy coursed down the shaft of the spear, knocking Sergius flat on his back. The ale cup flew out of his hand and rolled to a stop at Parham’s feet.

            “Do you intend to arrest this man?” Parham challenged, elegantly bowing down to retrieve and examine the mug.

            “It’s my duty,” the guardian maintained. “He was looting.”

            Sergius responded with a string of curses as he painfully pulled himself back to his feet. “I own this place!” he finally declared. “What’s left of it, you – ”

            “He is the lawful owner of these premises,” Parham interrupted. “And if my word on this is not sufficient, and you persist in interfering with his activities, we will continue this discussion in a Council court.”

            Parham lifted his right hand and held it palm out toward the City Guardian. The Council seal briefly appeared on his flesh, like a glowing tattoo, confirming Parham’s rank as a Civil Priest. The spear was immediately lowered and the guardian moved off in search of actual criminals.

            “—useless idiot,” Sergius finished.

Parham passed him the cup. “Shall we go inside and see what’s become of your bar and my men?”

“That’s where I’m headed,” Sergius answered. He paused to take a long look at his defender. Parham’s appearance was pristine; it was almost inconceivable that the man had just been through an explosion. “How is it that you don’t have a mark on you? Not even a smudge.”

“A simple protection spell,” Parham revealed. “All Civil Priests are granted this boon by the Council gods.”

“Lucky man. I suppose we’d have a lot of dead lawyers without that,” Sergius smirked.

“I suspect we would,” Parham agreed as they entered the tavern.

Where the front door once welcomed thirsty customers, only one side of the jamb remained standing, leaning crookedly, like the last drunk holding up a bar. Sergius and Parham stepped over rubble and moved inside, where splintered chairs and tables had been flung aside by the blast. Five still bodies lay on the floor. Sergius quickly took stock of the casualties.

“These two were my girls,” he reported after confirming both were dead. He stood and walked to a pile of three men, nudging the one on top with his foot. “This one was a drunkard, no great loss. Don’t know the one under him.”

A groan startled Sergius and he withdrew his prodding foot. Apparently the body at the bottom of the heap wasn’t dead. Sergius pulled the two corpses away and found Dover. He was covered in soot and the blood of the others; it was the only time Sergius had seen him with a hair out of place. Sergius knelt and gave him a light slap on the face to bring him around.

“Dover, wake up. I didn’t hit you that hard.”

The slaver told Sergius to abuse himself as he gingerly sat up. “You’ll pay for that,” he vowed.

“The way I see it, you owe me,” Sergius said, extending a hand to help Dover stand. “If I hadn’t put you down, you’d have gotten a face full of lumber like these poor wretches.” Dover grasped the offered arm, pulling himself up.

“What happened? Last I remember – ” Dover’s eyes fixed on Parham. “Where’s your lackey? The one who slandered me.”

“Latonn? He has strong legs and a weak liver. He must have run as far as the east docks by now. At least I hope he has, and that those legs sticking out from under that wall aren’t his.”

The three men walked over to the new casualty Parham had noticed.

“No, Latonn’s long gone. Those are a poor man’s shoes,” Parham said after studying the victim’s feet.

Dover grumbled and walked off, leaving Sergius and Parham in the wreckage. The utter ruin of it began to sink in.

“What am I going to do with a tavern full of corpses!” Sergius railed. “What in bull’s balls led to this?”

Parham righted a tipped-over chair, judged it still had enough structural integrity to support him, and sat down on it. He gestured toward another chair, encouraging Sergius to join him.

“Haven’t you heard about the crystal guardian scandal?” Parham asked. He watched Sergius sit down and fold his arms sullenly.

“No. I don’t get out much.”

Parham was pleased to hear this, relishing the opportunity to tell a story. “Well, it all began after the Council election when gods were summoned for indictment.” He paused, sensing Sergius wasn’t sure what he was talking about. “A Greek water god, Glaucus, had been murdered, and the Council’s list of suspects had to appear before one of the crystal guardians of truth.”

“Glaucus, Glaucus,” Sergius mused. “Some old fish, if my memory serves. So who hooked him?”

“The killer is still at large,” Parham revealed with a dismissive wave of his hand. “But that’s not the interesting thing. When the goddess Mazu stood for judgment, the guardian abandoned his crystal. Apparently the secrets he saw in her were so horrible – ”

“Mazu? The old goddess who runs the ferry?”

Parham frowned at the interruption, a hint of irritation in his voice as he continued. “Yes, the very same. As I was saying, the guardian discerned some terrible secret and fled the crystal. Then some man of hers that Quetzalcoatl seemed particularly interested in interrogating led several troops of guards on a wild chase through the hospital quarter.”

Sergius smiled. He was sure, after hearing Mazu’s name, that the one who made fools of the guards had been D’Molay. “I bet he did.”

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