Dellaria Wells, petty con artist, occasional thief, and partly educated fire witch, is behind on her rent in the city of Leiscourt—again. Then she sees the “wanted” sign, seeking Female Persons, of Martial or Magical ability, to guard a Lady of some Importance, prior to the celebration of her Marriage. Delly fast-talks her way into the job and joins a team of highly peculiar women tasked with protecting their wealthy charge from unknown assassins.
Delly quickly sets her sights on one of her companions, the confident and well-bred Winn Cynallum. The job looks like nothing but romance and easy money until things take a deadly (and undead) turn. With the help of a bird-loving necromancer, a shapeshifting schoolgirl, and an ill-tempered reanimated mouse named Buttons, Delly and Winn are determined to get the best of an adversary who wields a twisted magic and has friends in the highest of places.
Release date: January 12, 2021
Print pages: 384
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The Ruthless Lady's Guide to Wizardry
Wherein Dellaria Hunts About for a Wayward Relation, Is Not the Recipient of Maternal Warmth, and Is Presented with an Opportunity for
Dellaria Wells had misplaced her mother.
That maybe wasn't so accurate, to be very fair to herself, which Delly preferred to be. To be very fair to Dellaria, she didn't have to do too much to misplace her mam. Her mam had a way of misplacing herself, like a cat who'd dart for freedom if you left the kitchen door open. But it'd been two weeks now, and even as gristly an old cat as Delly's mam ought to have gotten hungry and come home after a fortnight of roaming. Something had gone wrong, then, and as dreadful as her mam might be, it made Delly's stomach take disagreeable turns to think that she might be sleeping in a garbage pile somewhere. Delly, curse her eyes, was going to have to do something about it.
If you asked her mam, she'd probably say that her not having a place to stay was all her daughter's fault. That was the way it was when you paid someone's way: it went straight from you doing them a favor to them thinking you doling out cash was all part of nature's plan, like a bee making honey. But Dellaria hadn't yet discovered how to make a moneycomb, and at the moment she was so damn broke that she couldn't cover her own rent, let alone the rent of her dreadful brigand of a mother. She'd lost the steady work she'd had as a barmaid two weeks ago, when a regular got a little too insistent about trying to kiss her and she'd used her fire witchery to set his beard on fire. Now she was down a job and forced to live off of her wits alone. Her wits, as it turned out, made for very unsatisfying dining.
She was so presently impoverished, in fact, that she'd been avoiding her landlady for a week by only entering and exiting her room via the back alley. On this particular occasion, though, Mrs. Medlow was lying in wait for her by the kitchen door. "Dellaria," she said. "You know the rent's been due for a regular span now, dearie."
"Oh, might it so, ma'am, might it so," Delly said, thinking at her fingertips a bit. "I was just going to say when I saw you next, ma'am-and me having found it very right peculiar how I haven't seen you in some time, ma'am, right peculiar indeed-that I present you with ten sen of interest per day I've been late, ma'am, if that might be ensatisficating to your fine self?"
At that her landlady got a considering gleam in her eye, which she attempted to cover over with a delicate and motherly twitter. "That'll do very nicely, dearie," she said, "if you'll let me put another very wee hard promise on you."
Delly drew herself up a bit at that. Her landlady wasn't all that much of an expert wizard-just a gutterwitch, like Delly herself-but she could cast a hard promise with the best of them. Since the Lord-Mage of Hexos had invented the parameters for the damn things ten years ago, half of the ill-intended gutterwitches and debt collectors in Leiscourt had learned to cast a hard promise-there was nothing like them for extracting money out of the recalcitrant-but Mrs. Medlow's could have been used as examples in a course on the subject. Get your rent to her an hour late and you'd break out in throbbing pustules at best. "That ain't needful, Mrs. Medlow," she said. "I've always been as good as my word with the rent, you know that."
"You've always been as good as your word because I've put hard promises on you when you looked likely to run off to Monsatelle, dearie," Mrs. Medlow said, to which Delly was forced to concede a trifle. Let your landlady curse you once with an itchy rash on your haunches and you're unlikely to cross her a second time.
Delly narrowed her eyes at her. "Maybe I ought to take my custom elsewhere, then," she said. "To some kind personage less likely to set vile curses upon their paying guests."
"You might," said Mrs. Medlow, with wonderful placidity. "And pay eleven tocats a month for the privilege. That's the going rate these days, dearie, and here I am charging you six out of kindness, even in such hard times."
Delly sighed. Mrs. Medlow, though a dreadful old cat, had an air of plain honesty about her personage. Delly wasn't new enough to the copper-rubbing life to not know that any new room you moved into would inevitably be more expensive than whatever room you'd just been kicked out of for not being able to pay the rent. Enough of her memories had also survived her attempts to drown them in gin for her to understand that if by some thankful gift of the gods she managed to scrape together a bit of extra money this month, she wouldn't necessarily make the same the next. If she wanted to save herself from her own damn turnip-brained self, she knew very well what she should do: swallow her clever talk, keep the room, find some way to make some money, and pay as much rent as she could up front before she could waste her last sen on liquor and cards because she didn't have the self-control of a dog with a lamb chop. Which was what inspired her to open wide her gin-hole and say, "The hard promise, then. I get you your money in three weeks at latest, with interest compounding the whole while, or you hit me with what you like."
Mrs. Medlow twittered like a lark. "I would find that very agreeable, dear Miss Wells," she said, and grasped Delly's hand to force a hot bolt of magic through it.
Delly winced and shook her hand out. "What's my curse to be, then?"
"Pustules," Mrs. Medlow said, very cheerful-like. "The seeping kind. On the face, mostly."
Delly decided not to inquire as to where the type that weren't on the face would be. Instead she just gave Mrs. Medlow a resignated nod and headed out the door to search for her damn mother.
She knew better than to think that Mam might have managed to pay for another week's rent on her own. Still, she hoofed it down to Crane Street to check on the old bird's last known address-she wasn't there, no surprise-and then took a moment to buy a cup of coffee and a withered sandwich from a dingy coffee shop, sit on a bench in a park that was more a sanitarium for wan crabgrasses, and have a bit of a restful luncheon.
Thus refreshed (or close enough to it), she rose back up onto her trotters and started to look for her mam again. The real key with her mam, she thought, was to think of places where you could sleep for free without getting your head wet or having to listen to any sermons. Delly herself would much rather nod piously along to the sermon, soup, and predawn alarm if it kept her out from under bridges, but her mam had a way of advancing on people with her hand out, spouting off exactly the kind of thing that'd make even the most even-tempered hall officiant's ears go red, and then striking very radical and antiestablishmentary attitudes after they kicked her out of the meeting hall, by way of indicating that she hadn't wanted any of their damn soup in the first place.
Not that Delly really had any room to criticize the way her mam chose to live, when she herself had to get herself cursed with seeping mostly-on-the-face pustules before she could be trusted to pay her damn rent.
In any case, her mam did sometimes choose to appear more than once in the same location, which made her not completely impossible to track down. Delly went to a few choice bars on Six-Bend Island first. It took a bit of self-restraint to keep from bellying up and buying herself a drink. Her Elgarite refutation of fleshly wants was rewarded at the third bar, where the girl wiping the glasses said that ol' Marvie had been in a few times that week. Delly's dear old mam had been in the company of a fellow named Squint Jok, who had his bolt-for a few blocks away on Maiden Street. Delly could only think that it could be worse: Squint Jok could just as easily be Drunk Jok, or Fleabite Jok, or Worryingly Murderous in His Aspect Jok, any one of which wouldn't be the type of Jok you'd like to see in close association with your dear old mother.
She went to the house in question and gave it a good squint of her own. The door and windows at the front were all boarded over, which was a good sign in terms of the chance that her mam might be holed up inside. There was a side alley: she went down it and found a fence around what she supposed to be the back garden. At the bottom of the fence there was a hole large enough to admit a medium-sized dog. Delly gave a low groan, got down into the dirt, and endeavored to force her larger-than-medium-dog-sized carcass through the gap. She made it into the yard thoroughly besmeared with dirt and grass stains, with her dress ripped and her arms scratched and her good cheer considerably rumpled.
The house wasn't any more beguiling from the rear. Though she wouldn't hold that against it: the same could be said for Delly. Almost all of the windows back here were boarded over, too, except one that had had its boards pried off and the glass smashed out. There was also a trampled-down path in the weeds straight to the door. Delly followed it and tried the door handle. It worked, in that the handle didn't turn but the door swung open after she gave it a good shove.
Then she was in what had probably been a kitchen once. Delly tried not to look around herself too closely. Her mam had never been much for the domestic arts, but as the years had gone by she seemed to have made strides past simply ignoring the filth and toward actively cultivating it. If Delly's mam had been born with any gift of magic she would have made a fine necromancer of crumb-eating insects and pernicious creeping molds.
After the kitchen there was a hall, and then what she supposed must be a sitting room, as it had a number of people sitting in it. One of them gathered himself up and said, "Hey," by way of expressing either surprise or annoyance at discovering an intruder in their midst. Then, exhausted by his efforts, he slumped back against the wall again.
"Mam?" Delly said, giving the murky air about her a good slicing squint. "You in here? It's me, your daughter. Dellaria Wells," she added, thinking that her mam might need a bit of brain dusting when it came to clarifying the name and identity of the young fruit o' the maternal bough.
"Delly?" came a voice from the corner. Her mam rose up in a tide of shawls-she was always a devoted wearer of shawls, Delly's mother-and then came toddling toward her on the uncertain hooves of the recently indisposed. "That's you, then?"
"Might it so," Delly said. "Won't you come out into the air, Mam?"
Her mother followed her out into the backyard, where they gazed at each other for a moment through a thick fog of familial irritation. "Whaddya want, then, Dellaria?"
Mam's eyes looked strange. Like scuffed buttons. Delly's own eyes went grape-shaped. "You ain't just had a gargle then, Mam." She didn't look just drunk.
Her mam scowled. "What's it to you, Dellaria?"
"Well, I passed through you on my journey into this reliving, for what it's fucking well worth, Mam," Dellaria said. "What're you taking? I thought you hated drip." Drip was what most people were taking hereabouts to make themselves go button-eyed. Dellaria herself steered clear. Drip was like love, she figured: all good enough fun, but you'd better not let yourself get too used to it or it'd take you apart as sure as knives.
Dellaria's mam went all dreamy, like her new fella had a job with a steady wage. "But before I hadn't dripped the red, so."
Delly made a sound that expressed her feelings a mite. A squawk of sorts. Then she said, "The red's the killing kind, Mam."
"Might be you could call it that," Delly's mam said.
"It ain't about what I call it," Delly said. "It's what it is, so."
Delly's mam looked back at her with her button eyes. "You want something from me, Dellaria?"
It was a fool's game to want anything from Marvie Wells, but it was a game Delly had been playing since the day she was born. "Nah, Mam," she said, slipping further into the West Leiscourt alleychat they'd both grown up swimming in. "Only to get mirrors on thee, see if th'art still chewing air, so. If I manage to find the clink to pay for it, will you take a bolt-for I rent for thee, Mam?" Delly thought she'd get her into a boardinghouse for women this time, if she could scrape together the cash. It probably wouldn't keep whatever miserable drip-dealing Jok Mam was going around with these days away from her, but it might be some kind of start, at least.
"Might it so," Mam said, with a sly smile that made Delly want to slap her lips off.
She didn't do that, though. She just said, "Will I be able to find thee here, then, Mam?"
"Might it so," Mam said again. "Until the cops catch us or the place burns down." Delly expected that was the best she would get, so she took her leave of the mean old trout and let her inward currents pull her back toward her room, and the gin that lay below it.
Delly lived in a bare little room in a boardinghouse above a bar called the HangmanÕs Rest. SheÕd always figured that the name was meant to be a nod to the culmination of the career paths of some of the regulars, so in that way it suited her fine. It was a good little room. The floor didnÕt slant too badly, the ceiling only leaked a little bit in the one corner during heavy rain, and it was right above the barÕs back room. She liked that. It gave her a comforted feeling to sleep above so much gin. If the floors gave out, at least sheÕd have a softish landing.
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