Welcome to Prague, 1970: ground zero in a Cold War of spies and sorcerers. The streets are a deadly chessboard on which the CIA and KGB make their moves, little dreaming that a deeper game is being played between the Consortium of Ice and the Acolytes of Flame, ancient organizations that seek to harness elemental magic.
Tanya Morozova is a KGB officer and the latest in a long of Ice sorceresses; Gabe Pritchard is a CIA officer and reluctant Ice recruit. Enemies at one turn, but forced into alliances at the next, their relationship is as explosive as the Cold War itself.
About the Author
Max Gladstone has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia, drank almond milk with monks on Wudang Shan, and wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat. Max is also the author of the Craft Sequence of books about undead gods and skeletal law wizards—Full Fathom Five, Three Parts Dead, Two Serpents Rise, and Last First Snow. Max fools everyone by actually writing novels in the coffee shops of Davis Square in Somerville, MA. His dreams are much nicer than you’d expect. MaxGladstone.com. @maxgladstone.
Cassandra Rose Clarke grew up in south Texas and currently lives in a suburb of Houston, where she writes and teaches composition at a pair of local colleges. She holds an M.A. in creative writing from The University of Texas at Austin, and in 2010 she attended the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop in Seattle. Her work has been nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award and YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults. Her latest novel is Our Lady of the Ice, out now from Saga Press. CassandraRoseClark.com. @mitochondrial.
Ian Tregillis is the son of a bearded mountebank and a discredited tarot card reader. He is the author of the Milkweed Triptych, Something More than Night, and the Alchemy Wars trilogy. His most current novel is The Rising (Alchemy Wars #2). His short fiction has appeared at numerous venues including Tor.com, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Popular Science. He lives in New Mexico, where he consorts with writers, scientists, and other disreputable types. IanTregillis.com. @ITregillis.
Michael Swanwick has received the Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon, World Fantasy and Hugo Awards. He has written nine novels, 150 short stories, and countless flash fictions. His latest novel, Chasing the Phoenix, is available from Tor Books. FloggingBabel.blogspot.com.
Read an Excerpt
Prague, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
January 18, 1970
Tatiana Mikhailovna Morozova lay on her belly on the slate roof tiles, trying not to let the cold harden her muscles. She needed to stay limber for whatever came next—if it ever came next. The past few nights had proven fruitless, but she couldn't let down her guard. She listened to Prague's nightlife settle around her, from the distant mutter of drunks to the crunch of thin boot soles against snow to the heavy chill crackling in her numb ears, and tried to sift through them for any signs of her target.
But none of the street sounds were out of the ordinary; not a single person was out of place. Her entire operation, so carefully crafted, had been for nothing.
Tanya grabbed the binoculars from the rooftop ledge—KOMZ, dense metal and enviable optics, standard KGB issue—and surveyed Staré Město Square once more. A lone man crossed the square, kicking up a swirl of fog in his wake, but his frowning face was not that of their target. She swiveled her gaze across the night-stained square toward the streetlamp at the northwestern entrance, where a woman leaned against the post. Tanya couldn't hear the repetitive click of the lighter flicking open and snapping shut, but she could imagine it; she knew the sound too well. Nadezhda was just as bored as she was—knowing Nadia, probably more. If their target didn't show soon, it'd be another empty night. Another battle lost.
With a growing sense of desperation, Tanya checked each exit of the square once more. Their sources had hinted that their adversaries were working on a new, advanced scouting method, and this was just the sort of night for them to turn it loose. All their analysis indicated tonight was ideal—weather conditions, star alignment, magnetic pull, all those fiddly little calibration elements that operators like her rarely had to take into consideration. That's what the bureaucrats were for. But if Tanya let another target slip past, too many people would pay the price.
Several of their assets had already vanished, and they couldn't afford to lose even one more. She had a better chance out here, on the edge of the Iron Curtain, but then, so did the other side. It was difficult to get information when she was back in Moscow, spending her days in the dank basement of the Lubyanka headquarters, pretending she couldn't hear the screams from the interrogation cells. And her family was better connected than most, better skilled at greasing the ancient gossip machinery that far predated the East-West divide.
The messages they did manage to pass on were always brief, vague, smuggled in via coded newspaper advertisements or a short radio broadcast on a signal strong enough to pierce the censors' static. We have located one in Burma, the message might read, or One lost to them in Marrakesh. Tanya didn't know which side was ahead, but suspected it was a little too even for anyone's comfort.
Something rattled on the roof ledge beside her.
Tanya dropped the binoculars and glanced toward the array of devices lined up on the ledge. They weren't so much devices, really—the largest of them was scarcely wider than a ruble—as charms. Talismans. One was twitching like an electric wire starting to fray; another hummed with a barely visible glow. Some kind of detector slowly coming to life.
Tanya held her breath like a fist squeezing shut. There it was, just on the edge of her hearing: a shuffle and scrape, dry and rhythmic. So rhythmic it sounded mechanical. Close enough, anyway. Tanya raised the binoculars again, and sure enough, Nadia had flicked the lighter to life. Their target had arrived.
Nadia lit the cigarette, but held it aloft, uncertain. Come on, Nadia. Give me a direction. Give me something to work with. The bright cherry bobbed as Nadia scanned the square. Finally, she jabbed it in the direction of a frothily ornate building tiered like a wedding cake of stone.
Tanya swiveled toward the old town hall. There it was, a dark figure, a blur behind the veils of fog. Crunch. Crunch. Each step in slushy snow a labored act. Was the target injured? Weak? Undercharged? They could only be so lucky.
She set the binoculars aside and bounded for the fire escape.
Drahomir was drunk. That was, after all, the plan.
He leaned over the table, clutching his beer with both hands. "And then I could see your friend Joshua to be holding the two pairs—I knew he had them, from his eyes, which are soft as pools. I am an excellent judge of character."
"You sure are, Drahomir." Gabe Pritchard raised his glass. "Here's to your success."
Smoke and jukebox jazz owned Bar Vodnář after dark. Candles flickered on tabletops. The lamps burned low, and conversation rumbled behind the music, Czech cut with jags of German and French. When the door opened, it drew eyes like filings to a magnet, but never held them long.
"I stayed in, to show him I was not afraid. I could turn the jack or the six, and his pairs would be as nothing against my straight. Through the, what is it—"
Drahomir grinned like a horse about to bite an apple. "The turn! But you turned no jack, and no six." He slapped the table once to emphasize each loss. "And he, what is it, re-raised. So all of my money, I push it into the center of the table. I will scare him away. And then, to find on the final card the jack, my friend!" He laughed, and slapped Gabe hard on his bad shoulder. Gabe kept his own smile beaming, and laughed along, though less harshly. "Gabriel! Poker is full of such strange words. Is there a word for this miracle?"
"It's called being a river rat, Drahomir."
"Rats," Drahomir observed, "are fantastic animals. They are hardy, and they live well in the most inhospitable corners of our earth. Wherever you find man, look beneath him and you will find a rat."
Gabe himself was neither a rat nor drunk, but he faked the latter well. Throughout the game at Josh's place, he'd steadily poured himself shots of iced tea from a whiskey bottle; after dragging the victorious Drahomir to drinks at the Vodnář, he'd switched to "gin and tonic." Jordan, who ran the bar, owed Gabe, and he owed her. She knew that when he ordered a gin and tonic with a twist, he meant hold the gin.
Plain tonic was the perfect drink for this kind of work: Gabe had never acquired the taste for quinine, and damn if the stuff didn't make him squirm just as well as if it were fully leaded.
But that wasn't the only reason he wanted to squirm, now.
This talk of rats and reading men might mean Drahomir had jumped a step or two ahead of Gabe's agenda. Gabe liked agendas: He liked conversations to move where and when he wanted under conditions he controlled. The plan had been to get Drahomir drunk and excitable—which Josh's sacrifice back at the poker table, and his sleight of hand, achieved neatly—but, flush with triumph, the man might be too drunk, too excitable, for the gentle work to come.
Gabe felt a sharp pain in the middle of his forehead, and hoped it was only nerves. He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "I'm glad you enjoyed the game, Drahomir."
Drahomir mimicked him. "Enjoyed? I found it wonderful. Such talking, it feels like playing against men. I have, you know, played mostly chess—there we keep silent, we watch, we are like machines. I never liked much gambling, but this!"
"It's a game about friendship, really," Gabe offered. "It teaches you to know people. When you can trust them. When you can't."
"Will we play again?"
"Soon," Gabe said. The pain intensified. He grimaced.
"Are you well?"
"I'm fine, Drahomir. A headache."
"Ha. A few too many drinks, my friend?"
"No, nothing like that." He focused on Drahomir's dark eyes, willing the pain away. "Look, Drahomir, we've known each other for a while now. I'm glad my job at the embassy lets me work so closely with you at the Ministry of Economics. It's been a good partnership." Another wash of pain split his head in half between good and partnership, but he kept his voice level. Drahomir looked concerned, but was it concern for Gabe, or concern at the subject of their talk? Jordan, at the bar, stared at him—at them. Had he made a sound without noticing?
Don't overthink it. Make the touch, make the call. You've strung this guy along, now show him the bait, and the hook. Gabe and Josh had figured Drahomir for an idealist and a patriot—a smart one, he'd have to be, the man had survived more purges than a cholera victim, but an idealist and a patriot still. Gabe had gone thirteen rounds with Headquarters over the proper pitch. Don't offer money, that would make us seem venal and corrupt. Play into Russian narratives. Let him know money's around if he needs it, but don't think you can buy him. Don't offer asylum. If he wanted to run he'd have run already.
Give Drahomir Milovic, assistant undersecretary of the Czech Ministry of Economics, a chance to be a hero. And let him take it.
Headquarters was doubtful.
"I especially value your friendship given everything your country's been through in the last few years," Gabe continued. Meaning, though he wouldn't say it out loud: the Prague Spring, Soviet tanks in the Staré Město, the end of their government's short-lived normalization. This was when Gabe needed the soft eyes, the earnest stare, the Marlboro Man jaw and the aw-shucks John Wayne calm: You can trust me, sir, I'm Amurican, ah just want whut's right. And he could have done it, had done it in a hundred gin joints all over the world, except for this damn pounding in his head like some furious dwarf burrowing inside his brain, mining for gold. It was all he could do to keep from wincing. Pull it together, dammit. Make the pitch. "We agree on a lot of things. You like freedom. You like being able to trust the people you sit next to. You like making your own choices, for your own reasons."
The dwarf hit a fresh vein of ore. Gabe raised a hand to his temple and tried not to scream.
"My friend," Drahomir said, not listening, worried—worried about Gabe because of this beautiful connection they shared that Gabe had spent the last six months building, block by painstaking block, "you seem unwell. We should find you perhaps a doctor."
I know people, Gabe could not say, because the words could not escape the ring of the dwarf's hammer, who would give their lives to know what you know. To sit at the Minister's ear and hear the poison the Soviets whisper there. To watch the little traces that matter: sudden shifts in spending patterns, interest in new industries in third-world nations, transfers of raw capital backed by Red guarantees. And when Drahomir said, Ah, but I have this knowledge, and I can do nothing to help my country, to help my people, he, Gabe, would reply, You can. Knowledge, Drahomir, is power. Like at the table, when you knew my buddy held two pair. And if you help us—and I'm not talking anything major here, just little details, schedules, the answer to a question or two once in a while, so long as you feel safe—you can sleep at night, and know you've done your part to slide a knife between the ribs of those smiling bastards who step so tenderly onto your country's throat and bear down.
That's what he would have said, but with kinder and more measured words, with the soft Iowa assurance he'd deployed so readily with assets in Cairo and Madrid and Bangkok and Milan, so that Drahomir, like all the men and women before, would listen, and look into his heart, and find that in that secret place he had forged, unwilling, unsuspecting, a tool to Gabe's own specs: a hammer, maybe, or wrench, or screwdriver, or pry bar, or knife. A tool with a handle, waiting to be used.
That's what he would have said, but the dwarf hit cerebellum paydirt and what he said, instead, was sharp and four-lettered and of no use to anyone at all.