We’ve all read about the quest. The grand adventure the heroes go on. The glory, the danger, the defeated villain.
But…what happens afterward?
We may finally have the answer (thanks to E.K. Johnston) and you can dive right into it RIGHT NOW below with this special excerpt from The Afterward!
As a rule, Olsa Rhetsdaughter avoided breaking into a house through the nursery. More generally, she avoided housebreaking, especially now that she operated without protection, but as the rain poured down on the city of Cadria, she was almost grateful to escape the soaking cold. She was used to sleeping rough—had slept rougher, as a point of fact, than she would tonight. But she hated the wet—how it permeated everything from her clothes to her hair to the slick stone of the wall she was scaling—and hated it all the more now that she didn’t have reliable access to a good fire. There would probably be several of those inside the house, as the wealthy owners warded off the damp.
Once she reached her destination, she paused halfway over the sill and surveyed the layout of the room as best she could in the dark. Her preference for a job of this sort was a musty attic or, in a pinch, an unoccupied guest room. There were just so many obstacles in a nursery: toys strewn on the floor; more than the usual number of beds; the family cat; and, of course, the children themselves. Children were restless sleepers. Children required lamps left lit in case they woke up in the dark. Children asked questions.
“Are you Olsa-thief-of-the-realm?” The voice was high enough and young enough that she couldn’t tell whether it was a lad or lass who spoke, but the question froze Olsa in her tracks halfway across the room. Dammit, she’d done such a good job of opening and shutting the window too.
“No,” she hissed. “I’m a demon that preys upon waking children in the dark. Go back to sleep.”
“I think a demon would be taller,” said a second voice. This one was almost certainly a girl. “Also, demons are usually on fire.”
Olsa sighed. All she wanted was a quick, easy job, and those were increasingly hard for her to come by. She’d taken this one because it had been a slow week, because her percentage of the take was high, and because the family she’d be stealing from employed one of the best cooks in the city. She’d been planning her detour through the kitchen on her way out in almost as much detail as she’d been planning the actual heist.
“Yes,” she said, flopping gracelessly into the chair by the fire. She was probably destroying the fine upholstery with her soaked tunic and hose, but the fire was warm enough that she couldn’t bring herself to care. “I’m Olsa.”
“Oh, tell us about the godsgem!” said the little one, a girl after all, bouncing across the room to sit in front of her, as though Olsa were her nurse. “Papa is a gem merchant, so I’ve seen lots of pretty stones, but they say the godsgem is the prettiest.”
“She knows Papa is a gem merchant, Ildy,” said the older girl. She was at the age where she felt it imperative to remain dignified at all times, so she didn’t bounce, but she did come closer and take a seat. “Why do you think she’s here?”
“Be quiet, Mina,” the little one, Ildy, said. “I want a story.”
“If you’ll both be quiet, I’ll tell you,” Olsa said.
It wasn’t the best plan she’d ever had, but short of diving out the window right now and making a run for it, she couldn’t think of anything else. She was caught, but it was better to be caught by these two than by their parents or whatever burly servants they had kicking about the house. Also, it was a very good fire. Olsa decided it was worth the risk.
The girls settled in front her, their white nightgowns tucked neatly under their legs. Soon, they would be too old to sit on the floor. Their skirts and stays would require chairs. Olsa wondered if either of them had ever sat cross-legged in their lives. She’d had to teach Kalanthe how to do it, and Kalanthe wore trousers half the time anyway. Money made a person very strange, and Olsa was more aware of it now than she had ever been.
“The first time I saw it,” she began, “I thought to myself ‘I could see a roomful of gems, all piled up on top of one another, and be able to recognize this one immediately.’”
“What does it look like?” asked Ildy.
“Hush,” said her sister.
“It’s not large and it’s not cut very well,” Olsa said. “From the stories, you’d imagine an emerald the size of my fist, cut with so many facets that the reflected light goes off in all directions at once. The truth is that the godsgem is much smaller, and almost raw.”
“That doesn’t sound very special at all,” said Mina.
“You hush,” said her sister.
In spite of herself, Olsa smiled.
“It doesn’t look like much,” she continued. “It doesn’t have to. As soon as you see it, you know it’s special. It sings, you see. Imagine the most beautiful hymn you’ve ever heard at the temple. The kind they sing on festival days, where the different sections of the choir layer their voices over each other’s in more than four parts. Now, imagine that, but a hundredfold. The most complicated and the most beautiful music you’ve ever heard, so much so that you can barely stand to listen to it, because you know that once you start, you’ll never want to stop.”
“That sounds dangerous,” said Mina.
“Of course it was dangerous,” said Olsa. She shook herself a bit to try forgetting what the godsgem had sounded like. Of course it didn’t work. It never would. The song would haunt her for the rest of her life. “That’s why they sent all those knights to find it.”
“Quicksword and Stonehand and Fire-Eyes and Silverspoke,” said Ildy, rhyming them off like a psalm. Olsa had seen them all naked, so she was somewhat less impressed by them. “And the Mage, of course.”
“And Ironheart,” said Mina. “And you.”
“Why did they send you?” Ildy asked.
“I asked myself that question a lot,” Olsa said. “The truth is that I’d done Sir Erris Quicksword a couple of favours. She needed a spy, and I was available. Only the men I was spying on got wind of it, somehow, and sent some footpads to cut my throat. I escaped them, but I knew I needed better sanctuary. I didn’t much fancy shutting myself up in the temple, so I went to Quicksword herself and she took me with her. Then I stayed because I didn’t have anywhere else to go, and because the gods like it when the people on a Quest stay the same.”
“They say the king picked those knights and you because you each matched a facet of the new gods,” Ildy said.
“Don’t be foolish, Ildy,” Mina said. “Everyone knows that the king had given instruction to let Sir Erris make her own decisions, and that meant picking her companions, and she picked the ones she thought it would the hardest for the Old God to tempt.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Olsa said. It wasn’t Kalanthe’s soul she was thinking of. “But, yes, Erris picked who went.”
There was a creak in the hallway, and Olsa tensed. Neither of the girls reacted, and presumably they weren’t supposed to be out of bed at this hour. They wouldn’t get in nearly as much trouble as Olsa would, but no one likes to be punished. Perhaps it was the cat. Olsa knew from casing the house that the family cat was enormous, and it wasn’t in the room with them.
“Tell us about Kalanthe Ironheart,” said Ildy. It was more a plea than a demand. She wasn’t old enough that she was used to being obeyed without question yet.
Olsa paused. Both Mina and Ildy were leaning towards her now, eager to hear a story about the Apprentice Knight. Kalanthe, like herself, had only been on the Quest because of circumstance. Young though she was, she was the same size as Sir Erris and could wear her armour. It was decided that if she came along, she could be used as Erris’s double if the occasion called for it. Since the older knights were much older and the Mage was mostly unapproachable, Kalanthe and Olsa had spent a lot of time together. It hadn’t been very much fun at the start, but, well, it didn’t much bear thinking of, to be honest.
“Ironheart will be the perfect knight someday,” Olsa said. She was plagiarizing a little bit, but maybe these girls hadn’t heard that particular ballad yet. It was easier to think about Kalanthe if she didn’t have to use her own memories to do it. “Tall and strong and dedicated. Pure of heart and sure of arm.”
Less pure and less sure when it came to other areas of expertise, but that was hardly fit for young children. Also, it was exactly the sort of memories Olsa did her very best to avoid thinking about.
“At the very moment when Sir Erris Quicksword needed her, Ironheart was there,” Olsa continued. She could see the scene in her head, replaying as it always did when she thought about Kalanthe and tried not to think about Kalanthe at the same time. Which happened fairly regularly. “In an act of sheer defiance and bravery, she threw her axe at the Old God’s altar.”
Both girls gasped, their faces lit with glee. They knew the story after all, it seemed, though they hadn’t heard it from someone who had been in the room where it happened.
“You know the Old God’s power,” Olsa went on. “Dark and cruel, it could not be broken by so simple a thing as a knight’s axe, even when the knight was good and righteous as Kalanthe Ironheart.”
She was very proud of herself for saying that last part with a straight face.
“But it was enough to split the Old God’s attention,” she said. “For a fraction of a second, He turned his awful face to Ironheart.”
It had been a terrible moment. Olsa had been certain that Kalanthe was going to die for her bravery.
“And in that moment, Erris Quicksword struck,” Olsa said. “Like her name says, she moved so quickly I could barely see her arm. Instead, it was a blur of motion as her blessèd sword came down on the altar and, with the power of godsgem, smashed it to pieces.”
“And that was the end of the Old God,” Mina said. “And the start of the new age with our King restored.”
“Something like that,” Olsa said. She wasn’t particularly fond of the new age. She was a lot hungrier in it.
There was another creak from the hallway. This time, Olsa was sure it wasn’t the cat. She hated leaving a job undone, but there was no way she’d be able to ditch the children and complete her thievery now. That chance had been lost as soon as Ildy woke up, and now it was time to abandon the house completely. Another failure and another night as the most famous person in the realm who wasn’t going to get any supper. At least she was warm and her tunic had dried out. She looked back towards the window, her escape, and counted out how many breaths it would take her to cross the room to it and jump.
Without warning, the door to the nursery slammed open. Though she was prepared for it, Ildy and Mina were not. Both girls screamed at the noise and kept screaming when, instead of the familiar faces of their parents, the nursery filled with soldiers-at-arms in the uniforms of the city watch.
Olsa dove for the window, but as soon as she had it up, she saw the torches below and knew there was no escape that way either. She looked about for another rooftop, but found nothing. That was why she’d had to scale the wall to the nursery window in the first place. The chief gem merchant of Cadria took few chances when it came to home security.
She turned around to face the watch. The girls’ mother had come in and was soothing them. Mina looked calm, but Ildy was furious. Olsa did her best to swallow a smile. It appeared she had made another noble friend, for all the good it was about to do her.
“Olsa Rhetsdaughter,” said the leader of the watch, her tone more resigned than anything else. “You are under arrest.”