Viscera, page 1
—Praise for Viscera—
“It takes a brave and immensely talented writer to concoct a dystopian fantasy of earthquakes, killing fields, drug addiction, and routine eviscerations that is also profoundly humane and laugh-out-loud funny. It sounds impossible, I know, but Gabriel Squailia has done it. Viscera is ultimately a story of self discovery, of being who you know yourself to be down deep in your gut even when the world wants to tell you otherwise. There is extreme ignorance and savagery in Viscera’s fictional universe, but there is kindness and healing too—just like the world we know.”
—Camille DeAngelis, author of Bones & All
“Viscera is a work of gleeful weirdness, set in a world that calls to mind China Miéville’s Bas-Lag novels, and full of characters fighting to reshape themselves and their destinies, in search of deep and resonant truth.”
—Kat Howard, author of Roses and Rot
“Exquisitely imagined, deeply insightful yet scathingly witty, Viscera barrels along at a scorching pace after vividly realized characters whose separate quests—for identity, for revenge, for release—find themselves on a collision course in a world that’s simultaneously both grimdark and surreal. Lusciously weird and utterly unique.”
—Nicole Kornher-Stace, author of Archivist Wasp
“In Squailia’s world, trees can act as a living internet, the calcified organs of dead gods lie under a city and respond to spilled blood with earthquakes, and having your major organs removed is not necessarily fatal. Identity shifts and slides as characters attempt to shape themselves and are shaped by their swiftly changing circumstances. To what extent, Viscera asks, does who we are lie in our bodies, and to what extent does it lie in our actions?”
—John Langan, author of The Fisherman
“The most delicious kind of nightmare, Viscera is gorgeous, theatrical, and weird as hell. Squailia’s voice, the world they weave with it, and the eminently human characters they build will linger long after reading.”
—Phoebe North, author of Starglass
Also by Gabriel Squailia
Copyright © 2016 by Gabriel Squailia
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Squailia, Gabriel, author.
Title: Viscera / Gabriel Squailia.
Description: New York : Talos Press, 
Identifiers: LCCN 2016017985| ISBN 9781940456683 (softcover : acid-free paper) | ISBN 9781940456713 (ebook)
Subjects: LCSH: Imaginary wars and battles--Fiction. | Imaginary places--Fiction. | BISAC: FICTION / Fantasy / Epic. | FICTION / Fantasy / General. | GSAFD: Black humor (Literature) | Fantasy fiction.
Classification: LCC PS3619.Q35 V57 2016 | DDC 813/.6--dc23
LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016017985
Cover illustration by Gabriel Shaffer
Cover design by Claudia Noble
Printed in the United States of America
—The Drash’s Kiss—
Raindrops slapped the cowl of Rafe’s cloak as he followed Jassa through the trees. She darted with ease between trunks and branches, clucking with irritation each time he was snagged by prickers or mired in the mud. Rafe was suffering from constant sniffles and a rising, bone-deep hunger, but Jassa’s spirits had been high since they left the city. She told stories as they went, some of which he’d heard three times since leaving Eth. This one, however, a meandering travelogue about how much better life had been before Rafe had been able to enjoy it, was new to him.
“But all of it was richer back then,” she called, as if from across a crowded room, “from the sauce in the dishes to the lottery payouts. You’re too young to have visited the court of Malachi the Emperazor, I suppose. Ridiculous title he gave himself, but no one could load on the excess like old Mal!”
“Passed me in the street one time,” Rafe said. He hadn’t actually been too young to visit the court, but too poor. “He was riding in one of those—”
“Stop your mumbling! Can’t hear a thing you say.”
“Sorry. What I said was—”
“You’d have been in swaddling-clothes during his Festival of Sevens,” she went on, loosing a sodden evergreen branch, which slapped him in the face. “Shame, too! He had a fetish for the number seven, and it was our shared obsession with numerology that got the Assemblage invited. Kindred spirits, he thought us, though he insisted there was no such thing as luck. Imagine! A madman, he really was, but so wealthy that no one gave a shit. Anyhow, there were to be forty-nine courses that night—seven mated with seven, you see; remind me to work on your arithmetic—and I was determined to taste them all, even if it made my belly burst. A few courses deep and I couldn’t tell one dish from the next, my fingers were that coated in gravy, so I turned to the child who’d been kneeling next to my chair all the while and said, ‘Where’s my napkin, whelp?’ And what do you suppose she says to me?”
“I don’t know!” cried Rafe. “What did she—”
“ ‘That’s what I’m for,’ she says, and flips her hair right over her face! Now, sure enough, I look around, and all the cronies of the Emperazor’s court are wiping their fingers in the silken tresses of their own human handkerchiefs. I even saw one blowing his nose! There were dozens of these children, and all of them matched. They were the royal offspring of some Northern clan, won for the city in the Battle of—well, some big to-do, at any rate.”
Rafe pushed the laughter out of his chest at what he hoped was the appropriate moment. “I wish I could have been there!” he hollered, hoping he was loud enough.
Jassa turned, scowling. “Boy, we’re hunting,” she hissed, water dripping from her nose. “Hush yourself, or we’ll never catch our quarry.”
Rafe bowed his head, trudging on behind her. He’d been incapable of saying the right thing since they’d left the city of Eth, a course he desperately wanted to reverse. Jassa had been so kind to him before he’d joined the Assemblage, buying him sweets, complimenting his looks, and introducing him to the basic principles of Fortune-hunting. She seemed to be around his mother’s age—a road-weathered forty-something—and he’d found in her a patience his own mother had never possessed.
Since he’d become her Deuce, though, he’d tumbled into a world of codes and rituals he barely understood, and everything he did felt wrong. For a time, he’d thought her affections would return on their own, but by now he understood that until he learned how to give her what she wanted, he’d earn nothing but her scorn—and the odd kiss from the drash, just enough to keep him well.
The night they’d met, she’d promised him all he could handle. “You’ll never go wanting again,” she’d said.
The fault was his own. She must have meant that he’d have it all once he’d earned it.
He’d simply have to do better. Once they caught their quarry, she’d see.
“And that liquor,” she called, e
“Ha ha!” It was not a party Rafe would have cared to attend. “Whatever happened to that Emperor, anyway?”
“You mean the Emperazor,” she said. “The Emperor came four rulers before.”
He blinked. “What’s the difference?”
“Difference? Difference?” She hooted with laughter. “No parties during the Emperor’s time, for one! Listen, this isn’t complicated. Jaegen the Emperor, Preen the Laminator, Malachi the Emperazor, Kruks Thagvallion, then the Caninists.”
“I don’t know how you keep them straight.”
“It isn’t that complicated,” she snapped, “if you’ve two hemispheres of a brain to rub together!—No, wait. Mal, then the Caninists, then Preen, then Kruks. So, right, the Emperazor was deposed by the Caninists, that’s what happened to him. A few short weeks after that party, he was strung up by his own entrails in the Crunkshank Gallery. Last I checked, his corpse was still dangling there—and the guts still held, after all those years. Bless his wallet, Old Mal always did have a strong stomach!”
“The Caninists,” said Rafe, struggling to show off a bit of history. “Weren’t those the ones that put a dog on a throne?”
“Well, it wasn’t a fucking cat, now, was i—wait.” Jassa dropped to her knees, examining a rumpled stretch of mud and moss. “Hush, you hear me?” Lank hair slid out from behind one ear, dangling into the muck. “Quiet.”
Out came her notebook, covered in the hide of some improperly-cured beast, its pages rumpled by dozens of stains. Pulling out a stubby pencil, she added to her collection of manic scribbles, muttering over the footprints in wet earth.
Rafe stared down, a familiar pain stabbing his lungs as his gut filled with a tidal fear. Ever since he’d joined the Assemblage, it had been rising and falling, highest in the morning and the still of the night, when Jassa snored beside him, more peaceful without the drash than he’d ever be.
Unless he found that peace once he proved himself. If these were the tracks of the stranger they’d been following, he’d have his chance soon enough.
Nothing terrified him more. Was it natural, he wondered, to fear the very thing he wanted?
Maybe it was better if it wasn’t. As Jassa had whispered at the party where they’d met, If Fortune loved what was natural, the birds would sleep in nests of gold.
She raised a pale hand and bent two fingers. Squelching as softly as he could, Rafe lowered his ear to her lips.
“A woman, barefoot. Snared a rabbit here, less than an hour ago.” She pointed vaguely to the markings in the mud. “Now tell me, Deuce: is she traveling alone?”
Rafe stared, watching his reflection wobble in a puddle. “I, uh. Does it—is it supposed to say in the mud?”
Jassa squinted at him, leathery skin scrunching around beady eyes. “How in hell would the mud say that? These are the tracks of a single woman, clearly. I mean wherever she’s camped, boy. Are there more, or is she traveling alone?”
Rafe’s mouth was dry. The hunger in him spiked, everywhere but his belly. “Am I—supposed to guess, Jass?”
Her hand came near his face, and he flinched, but she didn’t clap him, just rested her cold palm on his neck. She tugged him close enough that he could smell her breath, like goat’s milk. “What are you?” she said.
Various parts of him felt warm in complicated ways.
“I’m—I’m Rafe? Rafe Davin.”
Her lip curled. “What, not who.”
He’d already put a hand on his chest before he recognized what answer she wanted. “I am a member of the Assemblage,” he whispered.
He paused. “I am your Deuce.”
She stowed her notebook in the bag beneath her cape, about ready to throw him a beating. Where was the look she’d given him at his initiation, that pride so bright he felt like melting?
“I am Fortune’s plaything.”
She kept on staring. He almost blurted it out—but no, it was always about Fortune with her, and there was always something more he was meant to remember. Lists of leaders, lists of avatars, lists of rules for inviting luck, lists of things that might chase luck away—with no reference materials, and no time to study any of it, at least not when his head was clear.
Her fingers dug into the base of his skull. “What,” she whispered, “is a Deuce to his Ace?”
Rafe’s throat clicked.
“The vel—” she murmured, as if he were a child. “The veeellll—”
“Oh! ‘The velvet beneath the rolling of your dice,’ ” he recited.
Of course: this had been part of his initiation ceremony, with a dozen other flowery phrases he’d instantly forgotten.
“That’s right,” said Jassa. “The velvet beneath the rolling of my dice, guiding me in a billion invisible ways. I am here to take the chance, you are here to guide it. And because Fortune loves beginners, the less you know, the better.”
Rafe nodded with more passion than he felt. He knew nothing but the words in her lists, devoid of context, and beginner’s luck was the only reason she’d offer for keeping him in the dark. But Rafe didn’t feel lucky.
“So,” said Jassa. “When I ask you a question as my Deuce, boy, what are you to do?”
It felt safer to guess than to stammer. “Let Fortune answer with my tongue.”
Jassa clapped him on the cheek and took her head away from his.
She was smiling. He exhaled, slowly.
“Now show me,” she said.
Rafe closed his eyes.
“All right. Well.”
No visions lay in that darkness. No divine voice whispered the truth.
To hell with it. Guessing would have to do.
“No,” he said. “The barefoot woman doesn’t have company. Besides the rabbit, and he’s dead.”
Jassa laughed through her nose, tugging out her notebook, where she recorded this prediction in some cramped, illegible corner. “Then it’s time you made your Goddess proud, boy. Do you have something to say to Her?”
He nodded, feeling the weird little twist of his coming sacrilege. The things they wanted him to say made him feel ashamed and giggly all at once. Every other church he’d been to wanted worship from its worshipers, but not the Assemblage—they wanted him to say the most awful things he could think of.
He wondered how long it would be before he got used to it.
He knew that Jassa loved it when he blushed.
“Fuck you in the ass, Mother,” he whispered.
“Fuck Fortune right in the ass!”
“Good,” she said, chuckling softly, brushing his cheek with her hand, feeling its heat. “You look like a little bruised plum, you know that?”
His face burned hotter.
Jassa reached behind her cape. “Now. Who holds the reins of rule, boy?” He stared as she pulled out a dagger in a leather sheath. “Who is it that hoards all the wealth in the world?”
His hands began to tremble. She tossed the dagger from hand to hand, waiting.
This part he knew. “The worst among us.”
“The very worst,” she said, laying the dagger in his palms. It was heavier than he’d expected, and he longed to give it back and to wield it, all at once. “Every time the guard changes, we hit a new low. More rottenness, more avarice, more slaughter, fewer parties. And these despots swimming in on their waves of filthy lucre, Fortune loves them, does She not?”
“Only as they ascend,” said Jassa, pacing. “And then, as fast as She can, She forsakes them—and why?”
Rafe drew breath to answer, but Jassa barreled on, digging in her pockets. “Because they bend their fucking knees
She took out a tiny brass wheel, Fortune’s holiest symbol, and dropped it into the mud between her feet. “And this is our secret, boy,” she said, dropping her breeches and squatting. Rafe looked away from the source of the steam. “We know what makes our Goddess respond. As Gast the Foundation taught us, ere she died: to catch Fortune’s eye, you must spit directly into it. Look at me, damn you!”
Rafe obeyed, heart pounding. Jassa stood, hiking up her breeches, and stomped into the puddle, burying the wheel in piss and mud.
“We will take the city of Eth,” she said, eyes shining, “and we’ll keep it. Through deviousness. Through perversion. Through desecration.”
“ ‘The more evil a man does,’ ” Rafe recited, unsheathing the blade, “ ‘the more of the world he owns.’ ”
Jassa laced up. “Are you ready to become Her avatar, boy? Are you ready to own the world entire?”
He touched the tip of the dagger to his thumb, marveling at its edge. A little more pressure and his flesh would part like wet crepe. “I’m ready,” he said.
For once, it was true. He might not believe in Fortune, but he believed in this.
When it was done, he’d feel the kiss of the drash.
Jassa smiled, showing all seven of her teeth.
“Let us pray,” she said.
They found their quarry in a half-burnt farmhouse in the midst of a tiny clearing. With one wall missing and the others lined in charcoal-black, the building reminded Rafe of an outdoor stage. Crouching at the edge of the wood beside Jassa, he fought a paranoid suspicion that the dark-skinned woman they’d tracked here was playing a part to lure them closer. In any case, his guess had been right: she was traveling alone.
The woman salvaged a cleaver from the wreckage of the kitchen, then squatted before a chopping board that had once been a plank in the pantry wall. The rabbit hung nearby, already skinned. Rafe stared at her tall, taut frame in its mud-brown tunic, noting the economy of her movements. Her hair, bursting loose from braids that had needed attention months ago, was as gray as a storm cloud on a sunny day.