From The Gentlemen Bastards to Silver Queendom, the Grimdark team loves a good heist story. Which is why we are incredibly excited to present an exclusive excerpt from Greta Kelly’s new epic fantasy heist novel, The Queen of Days. A high-stakes heist fantasy novel featuring reality shattering magic, found families, and powerful deities.
Let the city be damned. It’s time to kill a god.
The Queen of Days
I woke to the feeling of fingers drawing circles in my hair and smiled. The room was bathed in soft red light as the morning sun filtered in through Shasheba’s gauzy curtains. Her high windows revealed a day that dawned cloudy and gray. The sort of day that demanded stillness. I sent my thanks to the heavens, planning on staying in this very bed for as long as its owner allowed.
“Good morning,” Shasheba purred from behind me.
“Morning,” I said through a jaw-cracking yawn. Her hand paused its drawings on my scalp. “No, don’t stop. That feels good.”
“Greedy boy,” she teased, but I could hear a smile in her voice.
We lay still and silent in the comfort of her room for a few perfect moments. I closed my eyes, trying to shut out the sense of duty sniffing at the door. I knew I should go out. Talk to Zee and Edik, introduce them to Tass, and go over the plan again. Should. But somehow none of it seemed all that important right now.
“Bal,” Shasheba said, her fingers lingering at the base of my skull. “When did you get this tattoo?”
“This one,” she said, scraping one long nail down the nape of my neck.
My eyes peeled open as cold air slithered beneath the sheets. Adrenaline poured into my limbs, but dread held me fast. “What does it look like?”
“You’re your tattoo.”
Shasheba tutted, oblivious to the way my tightening throat turned the words into a strangled plea. “It’s a sigil of some kind. I can’t read it though. It looks like it’s written in ancient Sorien.”
Ancient Sorien. The words rattled around in my skull, shaking loose a memory. A memory of me striking a deal with Tass; of a mosquito biting the back of my neck as we shook hands.
I threw the covers off and lunged for my trousers, yanking them on.
“What are you doing?” Shasheba demanded.
I didn’t reply. Couldn’t. My mind was too frenzied to form a response. Shasheba was as well educated as I was, as well educated as any noble in the kingdom. But not even the nobility thought it worthwhile to teach their children a language that had died out over two millennia ago. The only people who could read it were scholars, and . . . “Zeelaya.”
“I have to find Zee. Now. She can read Sorien.”
Shasheba rose, every hint of softness leaving her frame. “Why is your tattoo suddenly so important?”
“Because I never got a tattoo.”
Shasheba crossed her arms, pulling her robe closed as confusion and suspicion chased through her eyes. Damn it, I was ruining things between us. Again.
I seized her hand, willing her to listen to me even as my heart
screamed to find the others. “I don’t have a tattoo on my neck, Shash. Or I didn’t until I met Tass last night. When . . . we struck a deal.”
Blood rushed out of Shasheba’s face, leaving her skin ashen. “Bal . . . What did you give her?”
Nothing. Just a stupid promise that couldn’t mean anything.
Except . . .
My hand went to my neck. I opened my mouth but couldn’t get any of the words out. Time. I’d given her time. Mine and Kai’s and . . .
I dropped Shasheba’s arms and sprinted out the door.
“Mira!” My bellow echoed off the temple’s wooden halls, shaking the dust off the doorframes. Panic tunneled my vision as I sprinted up the stairs to the attic. Tass said she wouldn’t take any time from Mira, but . . .
But how could she take time from anyone?
I took the attic stairs three at a time and shouldered through the door. I registered Zee and Edik’s surprised faces before my gaze raked across the dim and cluttered room to Mira. She was still sprawled and drooling on her cot in the corner. I sprinted, banging my knees as I dropped to the floor beside her. She yelped when I flipped her over and immediately bucked. I managed to hold her squirming body with one hand, pulling up her corkscrew curls with the other. Clear.
“All Father, thank you.” I sagged to the floor, Mira’s spitting anger filled my ears, but I’d never been so happy to hear it.
“Bal, what the hell is going on with you?”
I stood, turning toward Zee’s annoyed voice. She and Edik were on the other end of the rectangular room, their breakfasts forgotten on the warped table Zee had commandeered to lay out our plans. Her eyes were narrowed over her hawkish nose. Wearing one of Edik’s shirts, her dark hair still mussed from sleep, Zee glared impatiently from me to Shasheba, who had ghosted into the room behind me. She stood only a few feet away looking flushed and oddly glassy-eyed.
Kai took up the doorway, watching me with bug-eyed amazement. He held his shirt in one hand, his trousers still undone like he’d dressed at top speed and ran when he heard me shout. His latest pair of lovers were peeking over his shoulder, eyes bright with curiosity. A curiosity that withered and died when they spotted Shasheba and received a look so dark it made the young woman bow and retreat.
The man flat-out ran.
Kai watched them go with a growl of annoyance. “What in Ruekigal’s four tits is the matter with you?”
Shasheba hissed. “Do not speak that name in this house. Not now.”
Kai rolled his eyes at Shasheba’s outrage. He’d never paid atten- tion to religion unless it resulted in a good swear. I wasn’t even sure he knew why Shasheba didn’t want the death goddess’s name spoken in Nananthe’s temple.
“What do you mean, ‘not now’?” Zee asked. As usual, she’d cut to the important part with frightening accuracy.
I walked toward my cousin, ignoring the kick Mira aimed at my shins, and braced my hands on the edge of the worktable, readying for a fight.
“When I woke up this morning, Shasheba saw a tattoo on the back of my neck. I need you to read it.”
Zee’s gaze narrowed. “Bal, you did not give me a heart attack over some drunken nonsense you and Kai got yourselves into.”
“Zee, please,” I cut in before she could work herself up to a real rant. “It’s in ancient Sorien. You’re the only one I know who can read it.” Well, that probably wasn’t true. Somehow I was positive that Tass was fluent in the dead tongue. Not that there was a chance in hell of me asking her.
Zee straightened when she heard Sorien and bustled over without further comment. Spinning me around, she brushed the hair off my neck. “Interesting,” she murmured, her annoyance completely forgotten in the wake of the tattoo’s puzzle. Zee leaned past me, grabbing a slip of parchment and a charcoal stick. She scribbled something down and shoved the drawing my way.
Shasheba had said it was a sigil, and I was inclined to agree. It was rectangular, with two rows of cramped text drawn in sharp gash-like lines. “It’s definitely ancient Sorien,” Zee said, as the others crowded around the table to get a look.
“Why is that important?” Kai asked, pulling his shirt over his head.
“Knowing you two idiots, it probably isn’t. It’s unusual though,” Zee allowed as she gathered her hair into a knot on the crown of her head and jabbed the charcoal stick through it to hold it in place—a sure sign she’d sensed a problem to solve. “The Soriens were the first civilization to use any kind of written language and it started with these tag-like markings.”
“Tags?” I asked.
“Yes, at least that’s what the scholars on Kisan assume they are,” Zee replied. Kisan was home to the only university in Ashaar. If any- one knew the mystery of the marks, it would be them. “They’re often found at archeological sites affixed to goods. They seem to denote place names or ownerships, or even to mark a debt.”
My heart fell. “What does this one say?”
Zee shrugged. “It will take me a while to decipher this part,” she said, gesturing to the top line of text. “I think it’s a name, but this bottom part is a number. Sixty.”
I closed my eyes against the word but found no comfort in the darkness there.
“Sixty what, Bal?” Shasheba’s voice was whip sharp. Her nails dug into my arm hard enough to draw blood. “What did you give her?” she asked as I opened my eyes, her face only inches from mine.
Shasheba’s hand dropped. She stepped back.
“Time?” Kai repeated, obviously confused.
Mira was looking at me like I’d lost it. At the moment I was inclined to agree. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“No,” Zee said, cutting me off before I could open my mouth. “We’re missing something. Start at the beginning.”
I raked a hand through my hair, then shook my head at the stupidity of the gesture. Not like it would help me organize my thoughts. “Yesterday, Kai and I arranged to get arrested so we could make contact with the fixer—”
“Yes, the ‘Queen of Days,’ I know,” Zee said, making impatient air quotes with her fingers around Tass’s title. “Did you make contact?”
“I did more than that. I secured her services. Thing is, she didn’t want money in payment for her help.” I hesitated, saw Zee shoot Edik a look.
Edik gave his wife a quelling smile. The ice to Zee’s fire, Edik was usually the only voice of reason among us, like age had given him wisdom. My eyes narrowed in on his hair, black and wiry and flecked with gray at both temples. Grayer than yesterday? I wondered, feeling slightly sick.
“What did she want, Bal?” Edik asked. “Time,” Shasheba whispered.
I nodded. “Thirty days. She wanted thirty days of our lives.”
Kai scoffed. “What does that even mean?”
“It means we’re all going to die thirty days sooner than we’re supposed to.”
The silence that met my words was like a great intake of breath, like the dead space between two heartbeats.
Kai laughed. The great booming sound was filled with too much bravado to break the mood. “Great Below, she’s even nuttier than I thought. How does she expect to collect something like that? It’s impossible.”
“That was my thinking too,” I said, well aware of the defensive note in my voice.
“So you agreed? For all of us? Without even asking?” Zee’s questions
peppered my face like the first stones of an avalanche.
She paused a moment, letting it sink in. And letting me feel how annoyed she was that I’d made yet another choice on her behalf. “And then your mysterious tattoo appeared?”
I forced myself to meet Zee’s stare and nodded. Her lips disappeared into a thin line. She spun to Edik, putting her hands on his shoulders, and forcing him to crouch. Her eyes narrowed on the nape of his dark neck.
Zee swore. “There is a sigil,” she said in a brittle voice. “Same as yours, but the number is thirty.”
Zee released her husband, her face a distinct shade of green. Her hands dropped to her belly like she was going to be sick.
Edik’s face fell, one hand twitching toward the medal of Janus hanging from his neck. He brushed the hair away from Zee’s neck instead, dread lining his every move. “You have one too, love,” Edik said, and drew Zee under one of his massive arms. His eyes rose to mine. Demanding answers.
I winced at what I saw in Edik’s face. He was always our ballast, the one calm point in our crew’s mess of difficult personalities. He wasn’t calm now. No one was. Kai rubbed the back of his neck, his lips moving in a wordless prayer. Shasheba hugged herself, looking at the table like she was at a complete loss for words.
Mira bit her cheek; I could practically hear the gears of her mind spinning. “Theirs say thirty,” she said, looking up at me. “Why does yours say sixty?”
Shasheba inhaled sharply. “You took on Miraveena’s debt, didn’t you?”
Mira’s eyes went wide, for once she was too preoccupied to snap at Shasheba and insist on being called Mira. Her lower lip trembled as she watched me, her silence a demand.
“Yeah. I did.”
“But not for the rest of us? You just let that—that thing take part of our lives without bothering to ask us first?”
Shasheba’s face was flushed with a rage my brain was too slow to understand. Then I realized. She thought Tass had taken her days too. “Relax, Shasheba. You aren’t affected by this.”
Like a candle being snuffed out, her eyes went flat. “Why not?”
In the time it took me to scrabble for a response, another voice provided the answer.
“Because you are not part of the crew.”
Shasheba’s eyes flashed, and she spun toward the door. Tass stood on the threshold, one shoulder leaning against the frame, arms crossed. She’d removed her hooded jacket, but her hair was still covered by a black veil worked with silver chains and several dozen tiny silver bells. There was a slightly amused air to the way she lounged against the wall and listened to the crew’s outrage. I couldn’t help but be grudgingly impressed by her stealth. Despite all those little bells and both Zee and Edik facing the door, she’d managed to sneak in unnoticed.
“Who said I’m not part of the crew?” Shasheba demanded, nostrils flaring.
Tass didn’t bother to answer. Then again, she didn’t really need to. Shasheba rounded on me.
“Am I not putting myself—and my people—at risk for your fool of a mission?”
“And snaking a huge chunk of Bal’s cut out of the deal,” Kai drawled.
“What?” he said, as I shot him a repressive look. “Not like she’s doing it out of the goodness of her heart.”
“She’s getting us in,” I said quickly, feeling the way Shasheba’s anger rose off her in waves but not knowing how to defuse it.
Unlike us, Shasheba and the men and women of the Low Temple had been invited to the ceremony. Though the idol was being dedicated to Karanis, it was the acolytes of Nananthe who would perform the consecration. The ceremony was meant to usher Karanis into our world, after all. And the acolytes of Nananthe were mid- wives before anything else. It’s what made her the perfect plant in Governor Paasch’s operation.
Kai knew it. The damn fool just didn’t like Shasheba.
“Look, Shash,” I began, trying for a smile, “you’re not upset that I didn’t give away part of your life.”
“No, Balthazar,” she said, livid splotches breaking out on her neck. “I am not upset about that.” She cast a disdain-filled glare about the cramped room. “You will excuse me, I have responsibilities to attend to.”
She turned on her heel and marched toward the door. To her credit, she only faltered slightly when she passed an unmoving Tass, who turned her head to observe Shasheba storm down the hall. Watching in profile, I could swear that Tass’s black painted lips deepened into a smile.
The impression broke when she turned back to me. “Are your mornings always so eventful?”
I opened my mouth to say no, but truthfully . . . “More often than not.”
She huffed a slight chuckle and pushed off the wall, swinging the door shut behind her with one hand. She took two steps toward the table. Stopped. Her head tilted to one side, attention entirely on Edik. One of his hands had dropped below the edge of the table. I could just see the handle of an army-issue revolver grasped in his meaty fist. Aimed at Tass. Edik’s face gave nothing away—it never did, but he’d shouldered Zee slightly behind him. And Zee had allowed it. I wasn’t sure what was more telling.
“Edik.” I waited for him to look at me. At first he refused to take his eyes off Tass, but then I said his name again and he finally glanced my way. I shook my head. He didn’t relax, and I knew why.
There was something undeniably other about Tass that put people immediately on edge. It wasn’t just the pistols strapped to her thighs, or the swords on her back. It was the way she moved. Despite the weapons and the dozen or so straps and buckles that seemed to hold her together, she walked with a kind of fluid grace that hovered on the edge of violence.
Shash had seen it right away. Mira, too. And now Edik.
Was I so blinded by this job that I had failed to recognize the wolf in our midst?
I grit my teeth, feeling that threat begin to boil over. Though Edik was the one holding the gun, I was afraid for him. I planted myself between Tass and the barrel.
“Edik, Zee, this is Tass. She has agreed to help us.” I placed a not-so-subtle emphasis on the last two words, praying it would get Edik to put the fucking gun down.
“Are you magic?” Mira leaned against the table beside Kai. She looked up at Tass, oblivious to the tension that hummed between the adults.
Tass’s face tilted to Mira, clearly considering the question. “Define ‘magic.’”
Mira crossed her arms, brow furrowed in thought. “I dunno. Can you do things I can’t?”
The hint of laughter in Tass’s voice made Mira scowl. “All right, but that’s not really an answer. You took time. How is that not magic?” Mira asked.
Tass’s head cocked to the left. “I do not understand the question.
The time was offered to me. I received it.”
“But that doesn’t make sense,” Mira argued. “Time isn’t a coin. I can’t pull it out of my pocket and chuck it at you.”
I glanced around the room and found that, by some miracle, Mira’s curiosity had made the rest of the crew—not relax, but pause.
Zee had returned to the table, watching the discussion with rapt interest. And though Edik still clutched the revolver, he no longer had it aimed at Tass. Kai was still frowning, but he’d leaned his elbow against the table, letting it take most of his weight.
“Ah. I believe I understand the source of your confusion,” Tass said. “You see time as an abstract, something vague and undefined. It is not. It is something you come into the world owning and leave the world having spent your share. You think I am magical because I was able to receive some of your family’s time. This is an imprecise conclusion. Time may not be tangible in the way your coin is, but it is still a commodity.”
Mira looked up at me, shaking her head in mute confusion. I shrugged.
“Just because a thing is intangible, does not mean it cannot be given,” Tass continued, but when Mira still looked lost, paused, considering. “How do you give a person your trust? How do you give someone love?”
The questions hung in the air, but Mira had no answers. Neither did anyone else apparently, though perhaps we were the wrong group to ask about such fragile things as trust and love.
“So you can’t do magic?”
“No, of course I can,” was Tass’s tart reply. She pivoted away from the exasperation on Mira’s face. “Perhaps now would be a good time to tell me your plan?”
“Yeah, all right.”
“No.” Edik’s voice cracked across the room, thunder-sharp.
“No, Bal. Now is the time for you to explain why the fuck you agreed to this without consulting us first.”