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Smoke & Summons (Numina #1)
Author:Charlie N. Holmberg

Smoke & Summons (Numina #1)

Charlie N. Holmberg



Chapter 1


Sandis had several reasons for staying.

The food was good. Better than what her meager income had once afforded, and far better than anything she might scrounge off the streets. Better even than what she’d had back home, when her parents were still alive. The roof never leaked. The constant drip, drip, drip in the slavers’ bunker had nearly driven her mad. She never had to do her own laundry, or her own mending. She got plenty of sleep, as factory shifts had long since been cut from her routine. Her bathwater was always warm.

There were other reasons, of course. If she was caught, she’d be punished, and Kazen’s punishments were memorable. If she wasn’t caught—and that was a big if—she’d probably starve on the streets until her corpse was thrown into one of the city’s numerous trash heaps. Any work she was qualified to do wouldn’t pay enough for her to get housing and food. She and Anon had always barely scraped by, and that was with them both pulling overnight shifts.

Sandis tried to focus on the first set of reasons as she poked at the broiled pig flank, cubed potatoes, and pickled apples on her plate. The food was better. Focus on the food.

Ignoring her own advice, she glanced at the pale ceiling above her and imagined the earth, cobblestone, and abandoned buildings above it. Sandis wasn’t exactly sure how far down she was, only that it would take a long time to dig herself out, if she ever tried. Ever since she was brought here four years ago, the rest of the world had felt very far away.

“Sandis?”

The small voice came from Alys, who sat across from her. Fifteen years old, just a year older than Sandis had been when she met Kazen. Her brown eyes were Kolin, but her blonde hair didn’t match that of any of the other vessels or the numerous grafters who lurked about Kazen’s lair. Sandis wondered if she had a mixed heritage, but had not yet asked.

She put her finger to her lips, urging Alys to be quiet. Kazen liked his slaves to be quiet. Alys replied with a nearly imperceptible nod and returned to her food. Good girl, Sandis thought. Alys was already blending in nicely. She hadn’t even gotten solitary yet. Sandis would make sure she never did.

The clunking of wood on wood drew her attention as Heath sat down beside her. He didn’t look at her, simply set his plate in front of him and sat heavily on their shared bench. Wielding fork and knife, he cut his food with slow, deliberate movements. Unlike Alys, Heath looked like a true Kolin—dark eyes, dark hair, just like Sandis. Just like his brother, who sat at the end of the table, eating silently and staring straight ahead . . . except for when his eyes shifted to Kaili, beside him. Sandis wished they wouldn’t sit together. Kazen hated any form of friendship among his vessels. Rist’s eyes gave him away.

Beside her, Heath jolted. Peering through the curtain of her hair, cropped an inch above her shoulders, Sandis studied him, taking in the slight wrinkles between his eyebrows, his flared nostrils, the tautness of his shoulders. Something was bothering him, more so than usual. He was upset and trying not to look it.

Something dropped in the next room over. Heath flinched. Despite having been here longer than Sandis, he was always jumpy. He refocused on his meal, his brow and hand twitching as he speared a piece of pork.

He wanted to leave, too. Sandis was sure of it. Most of the vessels—Rist, Dar, Kaili—were complacent in their roles. Like they had forgotten their lives before their brands. Like they really did focus only on the food. But Heath . . . Could something have triggered that unspoken need for freedom? She couldn’t ask, not here. Especially not with Zelna, rotund and covered in wrinkles, standing in the corner, washing dishes.

Then again, even if Sandis didn’t have her reasons to stay . . . what would she go home to? A muted pang echoed in her chest at the thought of her younger brother. Four years since he’d vanished, and it still hurt like an open wound. She’d been searching for him when the slavers grabbed her. The day she’d learned the worst—that he was dead, not just missing—she’d become complacent, too.

Almost.

The door to the small dining hall opened. Sandis jumped. She hated it when she didn’t hear him coming.

Setting down her utensils, she looked up at the man in the doorway—tall and lean, with a large hooked nose and a black hat drawn down over his forehead. Kazen wore that hat far more often than he didn’t, and he always donned dark colors to match. All the grafters did. The vessels’ beige garments seemed bright in comparison.

The brands on her back itched. She didn’t scratch them.

The others held their breath. No one chewed; no one looked away. Heath trembled—he’d been doing that a lot more lately—and Sandis pinched his thigh beneath the table. Not hard enough to hurt, but enough to steady him. Alys was attentive. Good.

Kazen’s eyes, a rare blue, scanned the vessels before landing on Sandis. Her skin prickled in memory of burning and ripping, of being swallowed whole by otherworldly beings. Of being made a weapon.

A warm pressure built under her skull—a presence she wasn’t supposed to feel, and one she could never tell another soul about, ever.

Vessels weren’t supposed to be aware of their numina, even those they were bound to.

She didn’t want Kazen to know she was special. It didn’t take a scholar to determine that being special was dangerous.

“Sandis.”

Her toes curled in her slippers, but she stood the moment he said her name, straight and erect and as perfectly as she could muster. Things with Kazen always went smoother when she was perfect. She felt the others’ eyes on her, but her eyes stayed on her master.

He gestured her forward with the crook of a single bony finger protruding from his aged hand.

Leaving her food half-eaten, she came.




In the fourth hour of the night, in a drafty basement room filled with men, Sandis was a threat. That was why Kazen had brought her there—why he ever brought her anywhere. Why, despite the chill, she wore a loose tunic with a wide-open back, exposing the ancient Noscon script branded with gold leaf down the length of her spine.

That had been one of her least painful experiences in her time among the grafters.

Sandis herself was nothing to fear. She was no stronger than the average eighteen-year-old female, and she had no particular skills outside of what she’d learned working on an assembly line as a child. She wasn’t particularly muscular or overly tall. She didn’t even have a scarred face to instill terror. She was unarmed.

And yet the men here—bankers, accountants, and a few Skeets from the local mob summoned by Kazen—knew what she could become. With a few whispered words from her master, she would cease being Sandis, slave, and would become a creature that didn’t even exist on the mortal plane. A creature whose name was tattooed in mixed blood above the impressions of golden writing burned down her back. A creature that would be completely under the control of his summoner.

Ireth.

“I assure you that everything is in order,” said one of the bankers. Sandis knew he was a banker by the way he was dressed—simple and clean-cut. She also knew he was afraid. Not because he trembled, but because he couldn’t meet anyone’s eyes, and because sweat glistened on his upper lip. He stood with two others on the opposite side of the table, farthest from the door.