The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley – Extract

The Emperor's Blades

PROLOGUE

Rot. It was the rot, Tan’is reflected as he stared down into his daughter’s eyes, that had taken his child.

Screams and imprecations, pleading and sobbing shivered the air as the long lines of prisoners filled the valley. The scent of blood and urine thickened in the noon heat. Tan’is ignored it all, focusing instead on the face of this daughter of his who knelt, clutching at his knees. Faith was a woman grown now, thirty years and a month. At a casual glance she might have passed as healthy—bright gray eyes, lean shoulders, strong limbs—but the Csestriim no longer bore healthy children, not for centuries.

“Father,” the woman begged, tears streaming down her cheeks. Those tears, too—a symptom of the rot.

There were other words for it, of course. The children, in their ignorance or innocence, called the affliction age, but in this, as in so much else, they erred. Age was not decrepitude. Tan’is himself was old, hundreds of years old, and yet his sinews remained strong, his mind nimble—if needed, he could run all day, all night, and the better part of the next day. Most of the Csestriim were older still, thousands upon thousands of years, and yet they continued to walk the earth, those who had not fallen in the long wars with the Nevariim. No; time passed, stars swung through their silent arcs, seasons gave way one to the next, and yet none of these, in and of itself, brought harm. It was not age but rot that gnawed at the children, consuming their bowels and brains, sapping strength, eroding what meager intelligence they once possessed. Rot, and then death.

“Father,” Faith pleaded, unable to proceed past that single word.

“Daughter,” Tan’is replied.

“You don’t . . . ,” she gasped, glancing over her shoulder toward the ditch, toward where the doranse went about their work, steel flashing in the sunlight.

“You can’t . . .”

Tan’is cocked his head to the side. He had tried to understand this daughter of his, tried to understand all the children. Though he was no healer, as a solider he had learned long ago to tend shattered bones and ruptured skin, to treat the festering flesh that came from a soiled wound or the racking coughs of men too long in the field. And yet this . . . he could no more comprehend the nature of this decay than he could cure it.

“It has you, daughter. The rot has you.”

He reached down and ran a finger along the creases in Faith’s forehead, sketched the delicate tracery of lines beside her eyes, lifted a slender filament of silver hair from the brown locks. Just a few decades of sun and wind had already begun to roughen her smooth olive skin. He had wondered, when she first burst from between her mother’s thighs, strong-lunged and screaming, if perhaps she might grow up unscathed. The question had intrigued him, and now it was answered.

“It touches you gently,” he pointed out, “but its grip will grow stronger.”

“And so you have to do this?” she exploded, jerking her head desperately toward the freshly turned earthen ditch.

This is what it comes to?” Tan’is shook his head.

“It was not my decision. The council voted.”

“Why? Why do you hate us?”

“Hate?” he replied.

“That is your word, child, not ours.”

“It’s not just a word. It describes a feeling, a real thing. A truth about the world.”

Tan’is nodded. He had heard such arguments before. Hate, courage, fear. Those who thought the rot an affliction merely of the flesh understood nothing. It corroded the mind as well, rusting the very foundations of thought and reason.

“I grew from your seed,” Faith continued, as though that followed logically from what came before.

“You fed me when I was small!”

“This is the way of many creatures: wolves, eagles, horses. When they are young, dependent, all must rely on their progenitors.”

“Wolves, eagles, and horses protect their children!” she protested, weeping openly now, clawing at the backs of his legs.

“I’ve seen it! They guard and tend, feed and nurture. They raise their young.” She reached a trembling, imploring hand toward her father’s face.

“Why will you not raise us?”

“Wolves,” Tan’is replied, brushing away his daughter’s hand, “raise their young to be wolves. Eagles, eagles. You—,” he continued, frowning once more, “we have raised you, but you are broken. Polluted. Compromised. You can see it for yourself,” he said, gesturing to the hunched, defeated forms that stood waiting at the rim of the pit—hundreds of them, just waiting.

“Even without this, you would die on your own, and soon.”

“But we’re people. We are your children.

Tan’is shook his head wearily. It was no good reasoning with one whose reason had decayed.

“You can never be what we are,” he said quietly, drawing his knife.

At the sight of the blade, Faith made a strangled sound deep in her throat and flinched away. Tan’is wondered if she would try to run. A few did. They never made it far. This daughter of his, however, did not run. Instead, she balled her hands into white, trembling fists, and then, with an obvious effort of will, straightened from her knees. Standing, she was able to look him directly in the eye, and though tears plastered her hair to her cheeks, she no longer wept. For once, however briefly, the disfiguring terror had left her. She looked almost whole, hale.

“And you cannot love us for what we are?” she asked, words slow, steady for the first time.

“Even polluted, even broken? Even rotten, you cannot love us?”

“Love,” Tan’is repeated, tasting the strange syllable, revolving it on his tongue as he drove the knife in and up, past the muscle, past the ribs, into her galloping heart, “like hate—it is your word, daughter, not ours.”

1

 The sun hung just over the peaks, a silent, furious ember drenching the granite cliffs in a bloody red, when Kaden found the shattered carcass of the goat.

He’d been dogging the creature over the tortuous mountain trails for hours, scanning for track where the ground was soft enough, making guesses when he came to bare rock, doubling back when he guessed wrong. It was slow work and tedious, the kind of task the older monks delighted in assigning to their pupils. As the sun sank and the eastern sky purpled to a vicious bruise, he started to wonder if he would be spending the night in the high peaks with only his roughspun robe for comfort. Spring had arrived weeks earlier according to the Annurian calendar, but the monks didn’t pay any heed to the calendar and neither did the weather, which remained hard and grudging. Scraps of dirty snow lingered in the long shadows, cold seeped from the stones, and the needles of the few gnarled junipers were still more gray than green.

“Come on, you old bastard,” he muttered, checking another track.

“You don’t want to sleep out here any more than I do.”

The mountains comprised a maze of cuts and canyons, washed-out gullies and rubble-strewn ledges. Kaden had already crossed three streams gorged with snowmelt, frothing at the hard walls that hemmed them in, and his robe was damp with spray. It would freeze when the sun dropped. How the goat had made its way past the rushing water, he had no idea.

“If you drag me around these peaks much longer . . . ,” he began, but the words died on his lips as he spotted his quarry at last—thirty paces distant, wedged in a narrow defile, only the hindquarters visible.

Although he couldn’t get a good look at the thing—it seemed to have trapped itself between a large boulder and the canyon wall—he could tell at once that something was wrong. The creature was still, too still, and there was an unnaturalness to the angle of the haunches, the stiffness in the legs.

“Come on, goat,” he murmured as he approached, hoping the animal hadn’t managed to hurt itself too badly. The Shin monks were not rich, and they relied on their flocks for milk and meat. If Kaden returned with an animal that was injured, or worse, dead, his umial would impose a severe penance.

“Come on, old fellow,” he said, working his way slowly up the canyon. The goat appeared stuck, but if it could run, he didn’t want to end up chasing it all over the Bone Mountains.

“Better grazing down below. We’ll walk back together.”

The evening shadows hid the blood until he was nearly standing in it, the pool wide and dark and still. Something had gutted the animal, hacked a savage slice across the haunch and into the stomach, cleaving muscle and driving into the viscera. As Kaden watched, the last lingering drops of blood trickled out, turning the soft belly hair into a sodden, ropy mess, running down the stiff legs like urine.

“ ’Shael take it,” he cursed, vaulting over the wedged boulder. It wasn’t so unusual for a crag cat to take a goat, but now he’d have to carry the carcass back to the monastery across his shoulders.

“You had to go wandering,” he said.

“You had . . .”

The words trailed off, and his spine stiffened as he got a good look at the animal for the first time. A quick cold fear blazed over his skin. He took a breath, then extinguished the emotion. Shin training wasn’t good for much, but after eight years, he had managed to tame his feelings; fear, envy, anger, exuberance—he still felt them, but they did not penetrate so deeply as they once had. Even within the fortress of his calm, however, he couldn’t help but stare.

Whatever had gutted the goat did not stop there. Some creature— Kaden struggled in vain to think of what—had hacked the animal’s head from its shoulders, severing the strong sinew and muscle with sharp, brutal strokes until only the stump of the neck remained. Crag cats would take the occasional flagging member of a herd, but not like this. These wounds were vicious, unnecessary, lacking the quotidian economy of other kills he had seen in the wild. The animal had not simply been slaughtered; it had been destroyed.

Kaden cast about, searching for the rest of the carcass. Stones and branches had washed down with the early spring floods and lodged at the choke point of the defile in a weed-matted mess of silt and skeletal wooden fingers, sun-bleached and grasping. So much detritus clogged the canyon that it took him a while to locate the head, which lay tossed on its side a few paces distant. Much of the hair had been torn away and the bone split open. The brain was gone, scooped from the trencher of the skull as though with a spoon.

Kaden’s first thought was to flee. Blood still dripped from the goat’s gory coat, more black than red in the fading light, and whatever had mauled it could still be in the rocks, guarding its kill. None of the local predators would be likely to attack Kaden—he was tall for his seventeen years, lean and strong from half a lifetime of labor—but then, none of the local predators would have hacked the head from the goat and eaten its brain either.

He turned toward the canyon mouth. The sun had settled below the steppe, leaving just a burnt smudge above the grasslands to the west. Already night filled the canyon like oil seeping into a bowl. Even if he left immediately, even if he ran at his fastest lope, he’d be covering the last few miles to the monastery in full dark. Though he thought he had long outgrown his fear of night in the mountains, he didn’t relish the idea of stumbling along the rock-strewn path, an unknown predator following in the darkness.

He took a step away from the shattered creature, then hesitated.

“Heng’s going to want a painting of this,” he muttered, forcing himself to turn back to the carnage.

Anyone with a brush and a scrap of parchment could make a painting, but the Shin expected rather more of their novices and acolytes. Painting was the product of seeing, and the monks had their own way of seeing. Saama’an, they called it: “the carved mind.” It was only an exercise, of course, a step on the long path leading to the ultimate liberation of vaniate, but it had its meager uses. During his eight years in the mountains, Kaden had learned to see, to really see the world as it was: the track of a brindled bear, the serration of a forksleaf petal, the crenellations of a distant peak. He had spent countless hours, weeks, years looking, seeing, memorizing. He could paint any of a thousand plants or animals down to the last finial feather, and he could internalize a new scene in heartbeats.

He took two slow breaths, clearing a space in his head, a blank slate on which to carve each minute particular. The fear remained, but the fear was an impediment, and he pared it down, focusing on the task at hand.

With the slate prepared, he set to work. It took only a few breaths to etch the severed head, the pools of dark blood, the mangled carcass of the animal. The lines were sure and certain, finer than any brushstroke, and unlike normal memory, the process left him with a sharp, vivid image, durable as the stones on which he stood, one he would be able to recall and scrutinize at will. He finished the saamaan and let out a long, careful breath.

Fear is blindness, he muttered, repeating the old Shin aphorism. Calmness, sight.

The words provided cold comfort in the face of the bloody scene, but now that he had the carving, he could leave. He glanced once over his shoulder, searching the cliffs for some sign of the predator, then turned toward the opening of the defile. As the night’s dark fog rolled over the peaks, he raced the darkness down the treacherous trails, sandaled feet darting past the downed limbs and ankle-breaking rocks. His legs, chill and stiff after so many hours creeping after the goat, warmed to the motion while his heart settled into a steady tempo.

Youre not running away, he told himself, just heading home.

Still, he breathed a small sigh of relief a mile down the path when he rounded a tower of rock—the Talon, the monks called it—and could make out Ashk’lan in the distance. Thousands of feet below him, the scant stone buildings perched on a narrow ledge as though huddled away from the abyss. Warm lights glowed in some of the windows. There would be a fire in the refectory kitchen, lamps kindled in the meditation hall, the quiet hum of the Shin going about their evening ablutions and rituals. Safe. The word rose unbidden to his mind. It was safe down there, and despite his resolve, Kaden increased his pace, running toward those few, faint lights, fleeing whatever prowled the unknown darkness behind him.

2

Kaden crossed the ledges just outside Ashk’lan’s central square at a run, then slowed as he entered the courtyard. His alarm, so sharp and palpable when he first saw the slaughtered goat, had faded as

he descended from the high peaks and drew closer to the warmth and companionship of the monastery. Now, moving toward the main cluster of buildings, he felt foolish to have run so fast. Whatever killed the animal remained a mystery, to be sure, but the mountain trails posed their own dangers, especially to someone foolish enough to run them in the darkness. Kaden slowed to a walk, gathering his thoughts.

Bad enough I lost the goat, he thought ruefully. Heng would whip me bloody if I managed to break my own leg in the process.

The gravel of the monastery paths crunched beneath his feet, the only sound save for the keening of the wind as it gusted and fell, skirling through the gnarled branches and between the cold stones. The monks were all inside already, hunched over their bowls or seated cross-legged in the meditation hall, fasting, pursuing emptiness. When he reached the refectory, a long, low stone building weathered by storm and rain until it looked almost a part of the mountain itself, Kaden paused to scoop a handful of water from the wooden barrel outside the door. As the draft washed down his throat, he took a moment to steady his breathing and slow his heart. It wouldn’t do to approach his umial in a state of mental disarray. Above all else, the Shin valued stillness, clarity. Kaden had been whipped by his masters for rushing, for shouting, for acting in haste or moving without consideration. Besides, he was home now. Whatever killed the goat wasn’t likely to come prowling among the stern buildings.

Up close, Ashk’lan didn’t look like much, especially at night: three long, stone halls with wooden roofs—the dormitory, refectory, and meditation hall—forming three sides to a rough square, their pale granite walls washed as though with milk in the moonlight. The whole compound perched on the cliff’s edge, and the fourth side of the square opened out onto cloud, sky, and an unobstructed view of the foothills and distant steppe to the west. Already the grasslands far below were vibrant with the spring froth of flowers: swaying blue chalenders, clusters of nun’s blossom, riots of tiny white faith knots. At night, however, beneath the cold, inscrutable gaze of the stars, the steppe was invisible. Staring out past the ledges, Kaden found himself facing a vast emptiness, a great dark void. It felt as though Ashk’lan stood at the world’s end, clinging to the cliffs, holding vigil against a nothingness that threatened to engulf creation. After a second swig of water, he turned away. The night had grown cold, and now that he had stopped running, gusts of wind off the Bone Mountains sliced through his sweaty robe like shards of ice.

With a rumble in his stomach, he turned toward the yellow glow and murmur of conversation emanating from the windows of the refectory. At this hour—just after sunset but before night prayer—most of the monks would be taking a modest evening meal of salted mutton, turnips, and hard, dark bread. Heng, Kaden’s umial, would be inside with the rest, and with any luck, Kaden could report what he had seen, dash off a quick painting to show the scene, and sit down to a warm meal of his own. Shin fare was far more meager than the delicacies he remembered from his early years in the Dawn Palace, before his father sent him away, but the monks had a saying: Hunger is flavor.

They were great ones for sayings, the Shin, passing them down from one generation to the next as though trying to make up for the order’s lack of liturgy and formal ritual. The Blank God cared nothing for the pomp and pageantry of the urban temples. While the young gods glutted themselves on music, prayer, and offerings laid upon elaborate altars, the Blank God demanded of the Shin one thing only: sacrifice, not of wine or wealth, but of the self. The mind is a flame, the monks said. Blow it out.

After eight years, Kaden still wasn’t sure what that meant, and with his stomach rumbling impatiently, he couldn’t be bothered to contemplate it. He pushed open the heavy refectory door, letting the gentle hum of conversation wash over him. Monks were scattered around the hall, some at rough tables, their heads bent over their bowls, others standing in front of a fire that crackled in the hearth at the far end of the room. Several sat playing stones, their eyes blank as they studied the lines of resistance and attack unfolding across the board.

The men were as varied as the lands from which they had come—tall, pale, blocky Edishmen from the far north, where the sea spent half the year as ice; wiry Hannans, hands and forearms inked with the patterns of the jungle tribes just north of the Waist; even a few Manjari, green-eyed, their brown skin a shade darker than Kaden’s own. Despite their disparate appearances, however, the monks shared something, a hardness, a stillness born of a life lived in the hard, still mountains far from the comforts of the world where they had been raised.

The Shin were a small order, with barely two hundred monks at Ashk’lan. The young gods—Eira, Heqet, Orella, and the rest—drew adherents from three continents and enjoyed temples in almost every town and city, palatial spaces draped with silk and crusted with gold, some of which rivaled the dwellings of the richest ministers and atreps. Heqet alone must have commanded thousands of priests and ten times that number who came to worship at his altar when they felt the need of courage.

The less savory gods had their adherents as well. Stories abounded of the halls of Rassambur and the bloody servants of Ananshael, tales of chalices carved from skulls and dripping marrow, of infants strangled in their sleep, of dark orgies where sex and death were hideously mingled. Some claimed that only a tenth of those who entered the doors ever returned. Taken by the Lord of Bones, people whispered. Taken by Death himself.

The older gods, aloof from the world and indifferent to the affairs of humans, drew fewer adherents. Nonetheless, they had their names— Intarra and her consort, Hull the Bat, Pta and Astar’ren—and scattered throughout the three continents, thousands worshipped those names.

Only the Blank God remained nameless, faceless. The Shin held that he was the oldest, the most cryptic and powerful. Outside Ashk’lan, most people thought he was dead, or had never existed. Slaughtered by Ae, some said, when she made the world and the heavens and stars. That seemed perfectly plausible to Kaden. He had seen no sign of the god in his years running up and down the mountain passes.

He scanned the room for his fellow acolytes, and from a table over by the wall, Akiil caught his eye. He was seated on a long bench with Serkhan and fat Phirum Prumm—the only acolyte at Ashk’lan who maintained his girth despite the endless running, hauling, and building required by the older monks. Kaden nodded in response and was about to cross to them when he spotted Heng on the other side of the hall. He stifled a sigh—the umial would impose some sort of nasty penance if his pupil sat down to dinner without reporting back first. Hopefully it wouldn’t take long to relate the tale of the slaughtered goat; then Kaden could join the others; then he could finally have a bowl of stew.

Huy Heng was hard to miss. In many ways, he seemed like he belonged in one of the fine wine halls of Annur rather than here, cloistered in a remote monastery a hundred leagues beyond the border of the empire. While the other monks went about their duties with quiet sobriety, Heng hummed as he tended the goats, sang as he lugged great sacks of clay up from the shallows, and kept up a steady stream of jests as he chopped turnips for the refectory pots. He could even tell jokes while he beat his pupils bloody. At the moment, he was regaling the brothers at his table with a tale involving elaborate hand gestures and some sort of birdcall. When he saw Kaden approach, however, the grin slipped from his face.

“I found the goat,” Kaden began without preamble.

Heng extended both hands, as though to stop the words before they reached him.

“I’m not your umial any longer,” he said.

Kaden blinked. Scial Nin, the abbot, reassigned acolytes and umials every year or so, but not usually by surprise. Not in the middle of dinner.

“What happened?” he asked, suddenly cautious.

“It’s time for you to move on.”

“Now?”

“The present is the present. Tomorrow will still be ‘now.’ ”

Kaden swallowed an acerbic remark; even if Heng was no longer his umial, the monk could still whip him.

“Who am I getting?” he asked instead.

“Rampuri Tan,” Heng replied, his voice flat, devoid of its usual laughter. Kaden stared. Rampuri Tan did not take pupils. Sometimes, despite his faded brown robe and shaved head, despite the days he spent sitting cross-legged, eyes fixed in his devotion to the Blank God, Tan didn’t seem like a monk at all. There was nothing Kaden could put his finger on, but the novices felt it, too, had developed a hundred theories, attributing to the man a series of implausible pasts by turn both shadowy and glorious: he earned the scars on his face fighting wild animals in the arena at The Bend; he was a murderer and a thief, who had repented of his crimes and taken up a life of contemplation; he was the dispossessed brother of some lord or atrep, hiding at Ashk’lan only long enough to build his revenge. Kaden wasn’t much inclined to believe any of the stories, but he had noticed the common thread: violence. Violence and danger. Whoever Rampuri Tan had been before arriving at Ashk’lan, Kaden wasn’t eager to have the man for his umial.

“He is expecting you,” Heng continued, something like pity tingeing his voice.

“I promised to send you to his cell as soon as you arrived.”

Kaden spared a glance over his shoulder for the table where his friends sat, slurping down their stew and enjoying the few unstructured minutes of conversation that were allowed them each day.

“Now,” Heng said, breaking into his thoughts.

The walk from the refectory to the dormitory was not far—a hundred paces across the square, then up a short path between two lines of stunted junipers. Kaden covered the distance quickly, eager to be out of the wind, and pushed open the heavy wooden door. All the monks, even Scial Nin, the abbot, slept in identical chambers opening off the long, central hallway. The cells were small, barely large enough to fit a pallet, a rough woven mat, and a couple of shelves, but then, the Shin spent most of their time outdoors, in the workshops, or in meditation.

Inside the building and out of the slicing wind, Kaden slowed, readying himself for the encounter. It was hard to know what to expect—some masters liked to test a student immediately; some preferred to wait and watch, judging the aptitudes and weaknesses of the younger monk before deciding on a course of instruction.

Hes just another new master, Kaden told himself. Heng was new a year ago, and you got used to him.

And yet, something about the situation felt odd, unsettling. First the slaughtered goat, then this unexpected transfer when he should have been seated on a long bench with a steaming bowl in front of him, arguing with Akiil and the rest of the acolytes. . . .

He filled his lungs slowly, then emptied them. Worry was doing no good. Live now, he told himself, rehearsing one of the standard Shin aphorisms. The future is a dream. And yet, a part of his thoughts—a voice that refused to be stilled or settled—reminded him that not all dreams were pleasant, that sometimes, no matter how one thrashed or turned, it was impossible to awake.

3

Rampuri Tan sat on the floor inside his small cell, his back to the door, a broad sheet of blank parchment spread on the flagstones before him. He held a brush in his left hand, but however long he had been sitting, had not yet dipped it into the saucer of black ink at his side.

“Enter,” the man said, beckoning with his free hand without turning toward the door.

Kaden crossed the threshold, then paused. The first few moments with a new umial could set the tone for the entire relationship. Most of the monks wanted to make an impression on their pupils early, and Kaden wasn’t eager to earn himself some grueling penance because of a careless misstep or lapse in judgment. Tan, however, seemed content to contemplate his blank page in silence, and so Kaden schooled himself to patience, attending to his strange new master.

It wasn’t hard to see where the novices had come up with the idea that the older monk had fought in the arena. Though well into his fifth decade, Tan was built like a boulder, thick in the shoulders and neck, and powerfully muscled. Furrowed scars, pale against his darker skin, ran through the stubble of his scalp, as though some clawed beast had raked at his head again and again, slicing the flesh right down to the skull. Whatever inflicted the wounds, they must have been excruciating. Kaden’s mind jumped back to the carcass of the goat, and he shivered.

“You found the animal that Heng sent you for,” the older monk began abruptly. It was not a question, and for a moment Kaden hesitated.

“Yes,” he said finally.

“Have you returned it to its flock?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It had been killed. Savagely killed.”

Tan lowered the brush, rose fluidly to his feet, and turned to face his pupil for the first time. He was tall, almost as tall as Kaden, and suddenly it felt as though there was very little space in the small cell. His eyes, dark and hard as filed nails, fixed Kaden to the spot. Back in Annur, there were men from western Eridroa and the far south, animal handlers, who could bend bears and jaguars to their will, all with the power of their gaze. Kaden felt like one of those creatures now, and it was with an effort that he continued to meet the eyes of his new umial.

“Crag cat?” the older monk asked.

Kaden shook his head.

“Something severed its neck—hacked straight through. Then consumed the brain.”

Tan considered him, then gestured to the brush, bowl, and parchment lying on the floor.

“Paint it.”

Kaden took his seat with some relief. Whatever surprises were in store for him under Tan’s tutelage, at least the older monk shared some habits with Heng—if he heard about something unusual, he wanted an image. Well, that was easy enough. Kaden took two breaths, composed his thoughts, then summoned the saamaan. The sight filled his mind in all its detail—the sopping hair, the gobbets of hanging flesh, the empty bowl of the skull cast aside like broken crockery. He dipped the tip of the brush into the bowl and began to paint.

The work went quickly—his study with the monks had provided plenty of time to hone his craft—and when he was finished, he set down the brush. The painting on the parchment could have been the image of his mind reflected in a pool of still water.

Silence filled the room behind him, silence huge and heavy as stone. Kaden was tempted to turn around, but he had been instructed to sit and to paint, nothing else, and so, the painting finished, he sat.

“This is what you saw?” Tan asked at last. Kaden nodded.

“And you had the presence of mind to remain for the saamaan.

Satisfaction swelled in Kaden. Maybe training under Tan wouldn’t be so bad after all.

“Anything else?” the monk asked.

“Nothing else.”

The lash came down so hard and unexpectedly, Kaden bit into his tongue. Pain screamed across his back in a bright, bold line as his mouth filled with the coppery taste of blood. He started to reach back, to block the next blow, then forced the instinct down. Tan was his umial now, and it was the man’s prerogative to dole out penance and punishment as he saw fit. The reason for the sudden assault remained a mystery, but Kaden knew how to deal with a whipping.

Eight years among the Shin had taught him that pain was far too general a term for the multitude of sensations it purported to describe. He had learned the brutal ache of feet submerged too long in icy water and the furious stinging and itching of those same feet as they warmed. He had studied the deep reluctant soreness of muscles worked past exhaustion and the blossoms of agony that bloomed the next day as he kneaded the tender flesh under his thumbs. There was the quick, bright pain of a clean wound after the knife slipped and the low, drumming throb of the headache after fasting for a week. The Shin were great believers in pain. It was a reminder, they said, of how tightly we are bound to our own flesh. A reminder of failure.

“Finish the painting,” Tan said.

Kaden called the saamaan back to mind, then compared it with the parchment before him. He had transferred the details faithfully.

“It is finished,” he replied reluctantly.

The lash came down again, although this time he was prepared. His mind absorbed the shock as his body swayed slightly with the blow.

“Finish the painting,” Tan said again.

Kaden hesitated. Asking questions of one’s umial was usually a fast route to penance, but since he was being beaten already, a little more clarity couldn’t hurt.

“Is this a test?” he asked tentatively. The monks created all sorts of tests for their pupils, trials in which the novices and acolytes attempted to prove their understanding and competence.

The lash took him across the shoulders again. The first two blows had split open the robe, and Kaden could feel the switch tearing into his bare skin.

“This is what it is,” Tan replied.

“Call it a test if you like, but the name is not the thing.”

Kaden suppressed a groan. Whatever eccentricities Tan might possess, he spoke in the same infuriating gnomic pronouncements as the rest of the Shin.

“I don’t remember anything else,” Kaden said.

“That’s the entire saamaan.

“It’s not enough,” Tan said, but this time he withheld the lash.

“It’s the entire thing,” Kaden protested.

“The goat, the head, the pools of blood, even a few stray hairs that were stuck on a rock. I copied everything there.”

Tan did hit him for that. Twice.

“Any fool can see what’s there,” the monk responded dryly.

“A child looking at the world can tell you what is in front of him. You need to see what is not there. You need to look at what is not in front of you.”

Kaden struggled to make some kind of sense out of this.

“Whatever killed the goat isn’t there,” he began slowly.

Another lash.

“Of course not. You scared it away. Or it left on its own. Either way, you wouldn’t expect to find a wild animal hunkered over its prey if it heard or scented a man approaching.”

“So I’m looking for something that should be there, but isn’t.”

“Think in your mind. Use your tongue when you have something to say.” Tan followed the words with three more sharp blows. The gashes wept blood. Kaden could feel it running down his back, hot, and wet, and sticky. He had had worse beatings before, but always for a major mistake, a serious penance, never in the course of a simple dialogue. It was becoming more difficult to ignore the lacerating pain, and he struggled to keep his mind on the subject at hand. Tan wasn’t going to stop whipping him out of mercy; that much was clear.

You need to see what is not there.

It was typical Shin nonsense, but like much of that nonsense, would probably turn out to be true.

Kaden scanned the saamaan. Every part of the goat was accounted for, even the intestines, which lay piled in sloppy blue-white ropes beneath the creature’s abdomen. The brain was gone, but he had painted the broken skull clearly, showed where it was scooped out. What else would he expect to see? He’d been tracking the goat, followed it to the canyon, and . . .

“Tracks,” he said, realization coming with the word.

“Where are the tracks of whatever killed it?”

“That,” Tan said, “is a very good question. Were they present?” Kaden tried to remember.

“I’m not sure. They’re not in the saamaan . . .but I was focused on the goat.”

“It seems that those golden eyes of yours don’t see any better than anyone else’s.”

Kaden blinked. He’d never had a umial mention his eyes before—that was too close to mentioning his father or his birthright. The Shin were profoundly egalitarian. Novices were novices; acolytes were acolytes; and full brothers were all equal before the Blank God. Kaden’s eyes, however, were unique. Tan had called them  “golden,” but in fact, the irises blazed. As a child, Kaden had stared at his father’s eyes—all Annurian Emperors shared them—marveling at the way the color seemed to shift and burn. Sometimes they raged bright as a fire caught in high wind; others, they smoldered with a dark, red heat. His sister, Adare, had the eyes, too, though hers seemed to spark and snap like a blaze of green twigs. As the oldest of the Emperor’s children, Adare rarely focused her bright gaze on her younger brothers, and when she did, it was usually in a flash of irritation. According to the family, the burning eyes came from Intarra herself, the Lady of Light, who had taken human form centuries or millennia earlier—no one seemed quite sure—to seduce one of Kaden’s forebears. Those eyes marked him as the true heir to the Unhewn Throne, to Annur itself, an empire that sprawled across two continents.

The Shin, of course, had no more interest in empires than they did in Intarra. The Lady of Light was one of the old gods, older than Meshkent and Maat, older even than Ananshael, Lord of Bones. Upon her depended the arc of the sun in the sky, the heat of the day, the numinous glow of the moon. And yet, according to the monks, she was a child, an infant playing with fire in the vast mansion of emptiness, the unending and eternal void that was home to the Blank God. One day Kaden would return to Annur to claim his place on the Unhewn Throne, but while he lived at Ashk’lan, he was just another monk, expected to work hard and obey. The eyes certainly weren’t saving him from Tan’s brutal interrogation.

“Maybe the tracks were there,” Kaden concluded weakly.

“I can’t be sure.”

For a while Tan said nothing, and Kaden wondered if the beating was about to resume.

“The monks have been too easy on you,” Tan concluded finally, voice level but hard.

“I will not make that mistake.”

Only later, as Kaden lay awake in his bunk, breathing shallowly to try to ease the pain of his inflamed back, did he realize what his new umial had said: “the monks.” As though Rampuri Tan were not one of them.

4

Even with the salt-sharp breeze gusting in off the sea, the bodies stank.

Adaman Fane’s Wing had found the ship on a routine patrol two days earlier, sails rent and luffing, dried blood on the rails, the crew

cut to pieces and left to rot on the decks. By the time the cadets arrived, the searing springtime sun had started its work, bloating bellies and pulling skin tight over knuckles and skulls. Flies crawled in and out of dead sailors’ ears, foraged between slack lips, and paused to rub their mandibles over desiccated eyeballs.

“Any theories?” Ha Lin asked, nudging the nearest body with her toe.

Valyn shrugged. “I think we can rule out a cavalry charge.”

“Very helpful,” she shot back, lips pursed, almond eyes skeptically narrowed. “Whoever did this, they were good. Take a look here.”

He squatted to peel back the crusted cloth from a nasty stab puncture just below the fourth rib. Lin knelt beside him, licked her little finger, then slid it into the wound up to the second knuckle.

A stranger meeting Ha Lin on the street might mistake her for a carefree merchant’s daughter on the cusp of womanhood: buoyant and blithe, brown skin tanned from long hours in the sun, glossy black hair pulled back from her forehead and gathered in a leather thong. She had a soldier’s eyes, though. For the past eight years, she’d been through the same training as Valyn, the same training as all the cadets on the deck of the doomed vessel, and the Kettral had long ago hardened her to the sight of death.

Still, Valyn couldn’t help but see her for the attractive young woman she was. As a rule, the soldiers avoided romantic entanglements on the Islands. Whores of both sexes were cheap over on Hook, and no one wanted a lover’s quarrel between men and women trained to kill in dozens of ways. Nonetheless, Valyn sometimes found his eyes straying from the exercise at hand to Ha Lin, to the quirk of her lip, the shape of her figure beneath her combat blacks. He tried to hide his glances—they were embarrassing and unprofessional—but he thought, from the wry grin that sometimes flickered across her face, that she had caught him looking on more than one occasion.

She didn’t seem to mind. Sometimes she even looked back with that bold, disarming stare of hers. It was easy to wonder what might have evolved between them if they’d grown up somewhere different, somewhere that training didn’t subsume an entire life. Of course, “somewhere different” for Valyn hui’Malkeenian meant the Dawn Palace, which had its own rules and taboos; as a member of the imperial family, he couldn’t have loved her any more than he could as a soldier.

Forget it, he told himself angrily. He was there to focus on the exercise, not to spend the morning daydreaming about other lives.

“Professional,” Lin said appreciatively, evidently unaware that his mind had drifted. She pulled her finger out and wiped the crusted gore on her blacks. “Deep enough to burst the kidney, but not so deep as to get the blade stuck.”

Valyn nodded. “There are plenty more like that, more than you’d expect from amateurs.”

He considered the purpling contusion a moment longer, then straightened up and stared out over the slapping chop of the Iron Sea. After all the blood, it felt good to look at the unblemished blue for a minute, the wide expanse of the meridian sky.

“Enough lounging!” Adaman Fane bellowed, cuffing Valyn across the back of the head as he strode the length of the deck, stepping over the sprawled bodies as though they were downed spars or coils of rope.

“Get your asses aft!” The massive bald trainer had been with the Kettral better than twenty years and still swam across the sound to Hook and back every morning before dawn. He had little patience for cadets standing around during one of his exercises.

Valyn joined the rest. He knew them all, of course; the Kettral were as small a fighting force as they were elite—the enormous birds that they used to drop in behind enemy lines couldn’t carry more than five or six soldiers at a time. The Empire relied on the Kettral when a mission had to be executed quickly and quietly—for everything else, the Annurian legions could usually get the job done or the navy, or the marines.

Valyn’s training group numbered twenty-six, seven of whom had flown out to the abandoned ship with Fane for the morning’s exercise. They were a strange crew: Annick Frencha, slim as a boy, snow-pale, and silent as stone; Balendin with his cruel grin and the falcon perched on his shoulder; Talal, tall, serious, bright eyes set in a face dark as coal; Gwenna Sharpe, impossibly reckless and incurably hot-tempered; Sami Yurl, the arrogant blond son of one of the empire’s most powerful atreps, bronze-skinned as a god and viscious as a viper with his blades. They didn’t have much in common aside from the fact that someone in command believed that one day they could be very, very good at killing people. Provided nothing killed them first.

All the training, all the lessons, the eight years of language study, demolitions work, navigational practice, weapons sparring, the sleepless nights on watch, the never-ending physical abuse, abuse intended to harden both the body and the mind, all of it aimed at one goal: Hull’s Trial. Valyn remembered his first day on the Islands as though it had been branded on his mind. The new recruits had stepped off the ship straight into a barrage of curses and insults, into the fierce, angry faces of the veterans who called this distant archipelago their home, who seemed to resent any incursion, even by those eager to follow in their footsteps. Before he’d taken two steps, someone cuffed him across the cheek, then drove his face into the wet, salty sand until he could barely breathe.

“Get this in your heads,” someone—one of the commanders?— hollered.

“Just because some incompetent bureaucrat has seen fit to ship you out here to our precious Qirin Islands, it does not mean you will ever become Kettral. Some of you will be begging for mercy before the week is out. Others we will break in the course of training. Many of you will die, falling from birds, drowned in the spring storms, sobbing pathetically to yourselves as you submit to fleshrot in some miserable Hannan backwater. And that’s the easy part! That’s the fucking fun part. Those of you lucky or stubborn enough to live through the training will still need to face Hull’s Trial.”

Hulls Trial. Despite eight years of whispered speculation, neither Valyn nor the other cadets knew what it was any more than they had when they first arrived on Qarsh. It always seemed so distant, invisible as a ship beyond the cusp of the horizon. No one forgot it, but it was possible to ignore it for a while; after all, no one reached Hull’s Trial if he didn’t survive the years of training leading up to it. And yet, after all those years, it had come at last, like a debt long due. In a little over a month, Valyn and the others would earn the rank of full Kettral or they would die.

“Maybe we can start this morning’s parade of incompetence,” Fane began, tugging Valyn’s attention back to the present, “with Ha Lin’s assessment.” He gestured with a huge hand for her to begin. It was a standard exercise. The Kettral were always dragging cadets to fresh battlefields, the examination of which would both harden them to the sight of death and hone their tactical understanding.

“It was a night attack,” Lin replied, voice crisp and confident.

“Otherwise, the sailors on deck would have seen their assailants. The raiding party came from starboard—you can see the gouges left by the grapples on the rails. When the—”

“Sweet ’Shael on a stick,” Fane interrupted, raising a hand to silence her.

“A first-year could tell me all this. Will someone please explain something that’s not obscenely obvious?” He cast about, eyes finally fixing on Valyn.

“How about His Most Radiant Highness?”

Valyn hated the title. It wasn’t even accurate, for one thing—despite the fact that his father was Emperor, he was never going to sit the Unhewn Throne—and for another, his high birth was irrelevant. There were no ranks on the Islands, no special perquisites or prerogatives. If anything, Valyn probably worked a little harder than most. Still, he’d learned long ago that complaining just landed you deeper in the shit, and he did not, at the moment, need to spend more time in the shit, so he took a deep breath and began.

“The crew barely even knew they were in trouble—”

Before he could finish the sentence, Fane cut him off with a snort and a curt chop of his hand.

“I give you ten minutes to look over this ’Kent-kissing goat fuck, and your only conclusion is that it was a surprise attack? What have you been doing? Pilfering rings and going through pockets?”

“I was just starting—”

“And now you’re finished. How about you, Yurl?” Fane asked, pointing to the tall blond youth.

“Maybe you can find some way to contribute to His Most Radiant Highness’s exhaustive analysis.”

“There’s just so much to say,” Sami Yurl began, shooting Valyn a satisfied smirk.

“That spit-licking son of a whore,” Lin hissed, low enough that only Valyn could hear.

Though all the cadets endured the same privations and aimed at the same goal, there were rifts in the group. Most of the young soldiers enlisted out of a hybrid desire to defend the empire, see the world, and fly those enormous birds to which only the Kettral had access. For a peasant’s son from the plains of Sia, the Kettral offered opportunities too fantastic to be believed. Others, however, came to the Islands for other reasons: the chance to fight, to inflict pain, to take life—these drew some as rotting flesh drew vultures. Despite Sami Yurl’s smooth good looks, he was a brutal and nasty fighter. Unlike most of the other cadets, he seemed never to have put his past behind him, striding around the Islands as though expecting everyone to bow and scrape. It was tempting to dismiss him as the pampered, puffed-up son of a lord, an aristocratic fool who had lucked into the cadets through coin or family connections. The truth was more galling: Yurl was an effective, dangerous fighter, better with his blades than some full-rank Kettral. He’d beaten Valyn bloody dozens of times over the years, and if there was one thing he enjoyed more than winning, it was humiliating those he had defeated.

“The attack,” Yurl continued, “happened three days ago, judging by the air temperature, the number of flies, and the rot on the bodies. As Lin said”—he shot her a sly glance—

“it was a night assault; otherwise, more of the crew would have been armed. When the pirates hit—”

“Pirates?” the trainer asked sharply.

Yurl shrugged and turned to the nearest corpse, casually kicking the head aside to reveal a gash running from clavicle to chest.

“Wounds are consistent with the weaponry that kind of trash tends to favor. The hold is ransacked. They hit the boat and took the goods. Bang the whore and get out the door—pretty standard.”

Balendin chuckled at the crack. Lin bristled, and Valyn put a calming hand on her arm.

“Lucky for them,” Yurl added, “there weren’t any professionals on board.” His tone suggested that if he had been manning the deck, the attackers would have encountered a very different reception.

Valyn wasn’t so sure. “Pirates didn’t do this.”

Fane cocked a bushy eyebrow.

“The Light of the Empire speaks again! You wouldn’t want to rest on your laurels after so astutely identifying the ‘surprise attack.’ Please, enlighten us.”

Valyn ignored the goading. Kettral trainers could crawl under one’s skin quicker than a sandfly. It was one of the reasons they made good trainers. A cadet who couldn’t keep his cool wasn’t likely to make much of a soldier when the arrows started flying, and Fane was nothing if not adept at making people lose their cool.

“This crew wasn’t the usual mix of sailors with a few mercenary marines to guard the cargo,” Valyn began.

“These men were professionals.”

Yurl smirked. “Professionals. Right. Which explains why they’re scattered around the deck like chum.”

“You’ve had a chance to run your mouth, Yurl,” Fane said. “Now, shut it, and see if the golden boy over here can manage to do something other than embarrass himself.”

Valyn suppressed a smile and nodded to the trainer before continuing.

“The crew looks pretty standard. A dozen men—the kind you’d find running a sloop like this anywhere from Anthera to the Waist. But only two of the bunks have been used. That means ten men on the deck at all times. They were ready for an attack.” He waited for that to sink in.

“And their weapons. They don’t look like much.” He lifted a standard deckblade from the hand of the nearest corpse and held it up to the light.

“But this is Liran steel. What kind of merchant rig runs ten on the deck, every man carrying Liran steel?”

“I’m sure,” Fane drawled, “that you’re planning to make a point sometime before the sun sets.” The man sounded bored, but Valyn could see the glint in his eye. He was onto something.

“All I’m saying is that if this lot were professionals, then the ones who boarded the ship and cut them down weren’t your garden-variety pirates.”

“Well, well,” the trainer replied, looking around the cluster of cadets to see that everyone had followed the argument.

“Even a blind horse finds the paddock once in a while.”

By Eyrie standards, the backhand remark counted as high praise. Valyn nodded, hiding his satisfaction. Sami Yurl’s lips tightened into a scowl.

“Ten minutes on deck,” Fane continued, glaring, “and only the imperial mascot, here, has been able to tell me a single worthwhile thing about this ’Kent-kissing wreck. I didn’t rope two birds into flying you out here just so you could spend the morning sticking your thumbs up one another’s asses. Go over it again. Use your eyes. Find me something worth knowing.”

Eight years earlier, the admonition would have shamed Valyn to his core. Such tongue-lashings, however, were standard fare on the Islands. He nodded crisply to Fane, then turned to Lin.

“Split up?” he asked.

“You stay topside, I’ll check belowdecks again?”

“Whatever you say, O Divine Light of the Empire,” she responded with a smirk.

“Let me remind you,” Valyn said, eyes narrowing, “that you’re not as big as Fane.”

She put a cupped hand to her ear.

“What was that? It sounded like . . . was it a threat?”

And you’re just a girl.”

It was a meaningless crack on the Qirins, where more than a third of the soldiers were women. Other imperial forces would have scoffed at the idea of a mixed-gender fighting unit, but the Kettral handled unusual situations, situations in which stealth, impersonation, deception, and surprise were as important as brute strength and speed. Still, if Lin was going to needle him about his parentage, Valyn intended to give as good as he got.

“I wouldn’t want to have to turn you over my knee and paddle you,” he added, wagging a finger at her.

“You know that Shaleel taught us how to crush testicles, right?” Lin replied.

“It’s pretty easy, actually, sort of like cracking a walnut.” She demonstrated with one hand, a quick, twisting gesture that made Valyn wince.

“Why don’t you stay up here,” he said, taking a good step backwards, “and I’ll make sure we didn’t miss anything in the hold.”

Lin squinted appraisingly.

“It might be more like a chestnut, now that I think of it. . . .”

Valyn tossed back the hatch and dropped below before she could finish the sentence.

The ship’s hold was low and dim. A few bars of sunlight lanced through the unchinked cracks in the decking above, but most of the space lay in deep, thick shadow. In a fight like this, there usually wasn’t much to see belowdecks, and only a few of the other cadets had already been down there. Still, it paid to look places other people didn’t.

Valyn waited for his eyes to adjust, then moved ahead, picking his way cautiously around stray barrels and bales as the vessel rocked gently beneath him, waves lapping at the hull. Whoever hit the ship had made off with most of the cargo, if there had been any cargo to begin with. According to the ink seals, the barrels that remained carried wine from Sia, although most of that trade tended to follow the shorter, overland route to the capital. A few crates were still lashed against the bulkhead, and Valyn pried one open with his belt knife: bales of cotton, also from Sia. It was good cargo, but not something professionals would usually go after. He was just starting to crack open the next crate when what sounded like a quiet moan caught his ear.

Without thinking, he drew one of the two standard short blades strapped across his back.

The sound was coming from the bow of the ship, all the way up by the foremost scuppers. Fane’s Wing should have checked the vessel over already, should have made sure that everyone was either dead or tied up before Valyn and the rest of the cadets came anywhere close. Fane, however, was one of the Eyrie’s more impulsive trainers, more interested in swinging a blade than skulking around belowdecks, checking pulses. He would have given the hold a glance, to be sure—but at a glance, a gravely wounded man could easily pass for dead.

Briefly Valyn considered calling someone else. If there were a sailor still alive, Fane would want to know immediately. On the other hand, he wasn’t certain just what he’d heard, and he didn’t relish the idea of hollering for the whole group only to find some untended livestock milling around in the bow. After a quick glance over his shoulder, Valyn glided silently ahead, belt knife held down by his waist, short blade in a tight guard before him—standard position for close-quarters fighting.

The man was tucked all the way forward against the curve of the keel itself, slumped in a puddle of his own blood. For a moment Valyn thought he was dead, that the sound had been the groaning of hawser against capstan, or the protestation of wood warping beneath the sun. Then the sailor opened his eyes.

They shone in the meager light, baffled and tormented by pain.

Valyn took half a step forward, then stopped. Assume nothing. That was the entire first chapter of Hendran’s Tactics, a tome that virtually every Kettral had committed to memory. The man looked near death, but Valyn held back.

“Can you hear me?” he asked quietly.

“How badly are you wounded?”

The sailor’s eyes rolled in his head as though searching for the source of the sound before coming to rest, finally, on Valyn.

“You . . . ,” he groaned, the word gravelly and weak.

Valyn stared. He had never seen the man before, certainly not in his years on the Islands, but recognition filled that feverish gaze and pinned him to the spot.

“You’re delirious,” he said carefully, edging closer. Unless the man was a professional masker, he wasn’t faking.

“Where are you wounded?”

“You have the eyes,” the sailor responded weakly.

Valyn froze. Usually when people referred to “the eyes,” they were talking about his father, Sanlitun, or his brother, Kaden, both of whom had been blessed with the famous burning gaze, flaming irises that marked them as the heirs to Intarra herself, as the rightful Emperors of Annur. Even his older sister, Adare, had that gaze—although as a woman, she would never sit the Unhewn Throne. Growing up, Valyn had been fiercely jealous of those eyes, had, in fact, almost blinded himself once with a burning twig while trying to light his own eyes ablaze. The truth was, though, that Valyn’s stare was no less unsettling: black pupils set in irises brown as char. Kaden’s eyes might be fire, Ha Lin said, but Valyn’s were the remains after the fire had guttered out.

“We came . . . for you,” the sailor insisted.

Valyn felt suddenly dizzy, disoriented, and the ship seemed to roll more treacherously with the swells.

“Why?” he asked.

“Who is ‘we’?”

“Aedolians,” the man managed.

“The Emperor sent us.”

The Aedolian Guard. That explained both the professionalism and the Liran steel. The personal bodyguards of the Emperor were both well trained and well supplied; aside from the Kettral, they were the most fabled troops in the empire, iron-willed men whose loyalty to the Annurian throne was the stuff of legend. The founder of their order, Jarl Genner, had decreed that they take no wives, father no children, and own no property, all to ensure their unstinting allegiance to the Emperor and to the Guard.

None of which explained their presence here, on a clipper three full weeks’ sail from the capital, all of them dying or already dead. Or who could board such a ship and kill these men, some of the finest troops in the world. Valyn glanced back over his shoulder into the murky gloom of the hold, but whoever had wreaked the havoc appeared to be long gone.

The soldier was panting at the effort and the pain of speech, but he clenched his jaw and continued.

“A plot. There is a plot. We were to . . . take you . . . away . . . protect you.”

Valyn tried to make sense of the claim. There were plenty of nefarious political currents in Annur, but the Kettral had chosen the Qirin Islands as their training ground and home because they were hundreds of leagues from anywhere. Besides, the Qirins were populated by the Kettral. The Aedolian Guard was storied, but the Kettral were legend. Anyone who planned to attack the Islands would have to be mad.

“Wait here,” Valyn began, although where the man would go he had no idea.

“I have to tell someone. Fane. Eyrie command.”

No,the Aedolian managed, yanking a bloody hand from his jerkin and reaching toward Valyn, his voice surprisingly powerful.

“Someone here . . . maybe someone important . . . is part of it. . . .”

The words landed like a slap.

“Who?” Valyn demanded.

“Who’s a part of it?”

The soldier shook his head wearily.

“Don’t know . . .”

His head dropped to the side. Bright crimson blood hemorrhaged from somewhere beneath the jerkin, splattering Valyn and the surrounding deck in fading spurts. An arterial wound, Valyn realized . . . only, an arterial wound killed in minutes, not days. The man should have bled out onto the deck by the time his attackers slipped back over the gunwales. He stepped forward to part the soldier’s jerkin carefully and stared at the long gash, then turned his attention to the gore-drenched hand that had dropped limp into the Aedolian’s lap.

“There’s no possible way . . . ,” he muttered to himself. And yet, the evidence was clear.

The man had been holding his own artery, had forced his fingers in through the sagging rent in his flesh, found the slippery tube, and clamped it shut. It was possible—Ellen Finch had gone over the technique in medical training—but even Finch acknowledged that you’d be lucky to last a day in that state. The Aedolian had gone close to three, waiting for someone, praying to whatever god he had trusted in, a god who had fucked him over well and for good.

Valyn touched his fingers to the man’s neck. The pulse fluttered, faltered, then failed. He reached out to shut the eyes when Fane’s earsplitting roar yanked him upright.

“Cadets on deck! Bird incoming!”

Just as Valyn shoved open the hatch, an ear-rending screech split the morning air. He burned to tell someone what he’d just heard, but the soldier’s warning echoed in his ears: Someone here is part of it. At the moment, he wasn’t even sure he could have told anyone: all eyes were turned to the sky to see a kettral soar overhead, dark wings blotting the sun.

Even after eight years on the Islands, eight years learning to fly on, fight from, load up, and drop off of the massive birds, Valyn still wasn’t fully at ease with them. If the annals were correct, the species was older than men, older even than the Csestriim and the Nevariim, a throwback to the days when gods and monsters strode the earth. Though the Kettral had found them, had ostensibly tamed them, nothing in the dark, liquid eyes of the birds had ever looked tame to Valyn, and now, standing on the open deck as the great creature winged overhead, he thought he understood the terror of a mouse caught in the middle of a freshly mown field as the falcon takes to the air.

“Looks like the Flea’s bird,” Fane said, shading his eyes with a hand.

“Although what he’s doing all the way out here I’ve got no ’Kent-kissing idea.”

Normally Valyn would have been intrigued. Although the Flea took his turn training cadets, he was one of the most deadly soldiers in the Eyrie’s very deadly collection, and spent most of his time flying missions in the northeast, into the savage Blood Cities, or against the Urghul, or to the south, where the jungle tribes constantly pressed up through the Waist. His arrival in the middle of a run-of-the-mill exercise was unusual, if not unprecedented. Such surprises helped to liven up the training, although, after Valyn’s encounter with the Aedolian, the black bird struck him as an inauspicious portent, and he looked over to take new stock of the cadets on deck. If the man hadn’t been lying, dark forces were in play on the Islands, and if Valyn had learned one thing with the Kettral, it was that surpises were safe only if you were on the delivering end.

Without warning, the bird tucked its wings, all seventy feet of them, tight against its body and, like a spear falling from the heavens, dropped toward the ship. Valyn and the rest of the cadets stared. All the Kettral could make flying mounts and dismounts; the creatures weren’t much good if you couldn’t get on and off them. But this? He’d never seen anyone come in so fast.

“There’s no way . . . ,” Lin breathed beside him, shaking her head in horror.

“There’s just no—”

The bird was upon them in a rush of wind and a maelstrom of kicked-up debris that almost knocked Valyn from his feet. Even as he shielded his eyes, he caught a glimpse of the creature’s talons reaching for the deck, a figure in Kettral blacks slipping loose from his harnesses, dropping to the boards, rolling smoothly to his feet. Before the wash of wind had subsided, the bird was gone, winging low over the waves to the north, and the Flea was there.

He didn’t look like much of a soldier. Where Adaman Fane was tall and built like a bull, the Flea was short and weathered, his tar-dark skin pockmarked from some childhood disease, a fuzz of gray hair hazing his head like smoke. The drop was a reminder, though, of what the man and his Wing were capable of. No one else made drops like that, not the other cadets, not the trainers, not Adaman Fane—and onto a moving ship! If Valyn had tried the same entry over water, he would have been lucky to walk away without shattering all his ribs. Over a pitching deck . . . forget it. He’d always thought the other Kettral were stretching the truth just a bit when they claimed that the Flea had flown more than a thousand successful missions, but that . . .

“That was uncharacteristically flamboyant,” Fane said with a raised eyebrow.

The Flea grimaced.

“Sorry. Command sent me.”

“And in a ’Kent-kissing hurry.”

The smaller man nodded. He glanced over the assembled cadets, seemed to pause on Valyn, then took in the rest of the group before returning his attention to Fane.

“You and your Wing are to be airborne as soon as possible. Yesterday, if you can manage it. You’ll follow me north. Sendra’s Wing’s already on the way.”

“Three wings?” Fane asked, grinning.

“Sounds exciting. Where we headed?”

“Annur,” the Flea responded. He didn’t seem to share Fane’s enthusiasm.

“The Emperor is dead.”


Excerpted from The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley. Copyright © 2014 by Brian Staveley.
First published 2013 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC. First published in the UK 2014 by Tor, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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