Prologue

Prologue

Lost in nightmare, Lilah Bay stumbled down a crowded street in a dark city.

She hurt all over. She was wounded in some mysterious way, her skull hurt, her ribs hurt, her legs hurt, her left arm hurt. Her head swam, her heart lay swamped inside her chest, her spirit seemed to have passed out or fled. She remembered no past and saw no future. Still she stumbled on.

Beneath her feet were the paving stones of the sidewalk. To her left were the blank walls of an unbroken line of buildings. To her right the narrow street, like the sidewalk, was filled with people trudging with her or pushing past her. Above her the sky was black and starless: she gave a look upward and saw nothing, until a random flash of firelight and then another showed the low feelers of cloud. Above her, above the low feelers, the ceiling was solid, a grey that was not quite black.

There was a constant noise of feet, and the chatter of voices uncaring and vague. A dozen smells mixed, none of them good, none of them horrible, blending in a choking smoke.

People pushed her and bumped her and glared at her as she stumbled onward. They spoke in no known tongue, and to be frank, Lilah was not sure they were all people in the strict sense.

She walked. Her feet kept moving: left, then right, then left, then right. People, or things that were like people, bumped past her. The smoke settled onto her skin and into her frayed mop of hair. The gloom settled into her lungs.

A man grabbed her arm. She was pulled through several people to the left and into a sudden alley. She spun left to face him. He was leering and pathetic, leering and lethal.

“You’re pretty,” he said. “I like chocolate.”

Lilah Bay brought her hand up, her dark brown hand at the end of her long, dark brown arm, and planted the base of her palm in his pasty pink forehead. He went down in a heap.

She looked at her hand. Great. Now one more thing hurt.

Someone was behind her. She whirled, ready again.

It was a man, a plain man in dark grey, but with a pleasant plain face. He had no beard, no mustache, not much reddish hair, little skinny glasses. He said, “You’re Lilah Bay?”

“Yes,” she said, for it was one of the few things she remembered.

“Would you like to come with me?”

She looked around. The alley was narrow as a corridor. The walls were covered in soot. No one was in it but them and the guy lying in a heap and a few furtive things on the ground checking him out. She met the man’s eyes. “Are you telling me I have to come with you?”

“No. You don’t have to.” He smiled apologetically.

“Okay, then,” she said. “Let’s go.”

He put out his left hand, palm down. He had a thin gold ring on it, a ring with a small purple gem. She put her left hand on his, palm down too. She also wore a thin gold ring, but with a pale gem, orange or pink or yellow. She stared at it: familiar but foreign.

They were gone.

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