The Last Mortal Bond: Chapters 2 and 3

The ancient csestriim are back to finish their purge of humanity; armies march against the capital; leaches, solitary beings who draw power from the natural world to fuel their extraordinary abilities, maneuver on all sides to affect the outcome of the war; and capricious gods walk the earth in human guise with agendas of their own.

But the three imperial siblings at the heart of it all—Valyn, Adare, and Kaden—come to understand that even if they survive the holocaust unleashed on their world, there may be no reconciling their conflicting visions of the future.

The trilogy that began with The Emperor’s Blades and continued in The Providence of Fire reaches its epic conclusion, as war engulfs the Annurian Empire in Brian Staveley’s The Last Mortal Bond—available March 15th from Tor Books and March 24th from Tor UK. Read chapters two and three one below, or head back to the prologue.

 

 

2

Night was a foreign nation.

It had always felt that way to Adare hui’Malkeenian, as though the world changed after the setting of the sun. Shadow elided hard edges, hid form, rendered sunlight’s familiar chambers strange. Darkness leached color from the brightest silk. Moonlight silvered water and glass, made lambent and cold the day’s basic substances. Even lamps, like the two that sat on the desk before her now, caused the world to shift and twitch with the motion of the captured flame. Night could work this unsettling transformation on the most familiar spaces, and these cold rooms high in the stony keep at the edge of Aergad were hardly familiar. Adare had lived inside them almost a year without ever feeling welcome or safe, even in the daytime. Night transported her even further, to a place that was hard, and alien, and barbarous.

The sounds of night, too, required translation. Morning footsteps in the hallway were normal—servants and castle staff going about their work. Past midnight, however, those same footsteps sounded furtive. A shout at noontime was just a shout; a night cry might herald danger, disaster. The courtyard outside and below Adare’s window was a chaos of activity during the day, but this late, with the gates long locked, it was usually silent, and so, when she heard the clatter of hooves on the cobbles, the terse commands snatched away by the wind, she set down her seal of office abruptly, careful to keep the ink from puddling on the pages, then, with her heart hammering inside her, crossed to the closed window.

A messenger at midnight was not the same thing as a messenger at noon.

She throttled her fear as she nudged open the shutters and the northern air slid cold over her sweaty skin. A rider at this hour could mean anything— Urghul crossing the Black River, Urghul already across the Black, Long Fist’s savages burning another border town, or his mad leach, Balendin, twisting the fear of Adare’s people into some new, foul kenning. A rider could mean she was losing. Could mean she’d already lost.

Reflexively, she looked to the river first, the Haag, carving its way south just beneath the high walls of the city. She could make out the stone arches of the single bridge spanning the flow, but night hid from her any sign of the sentries posted there. She took a deep breath, relaxed her hands on the casement. She’d half expected to find the Urghul, she realized, barely a quarter mile distant and storming the bridge, ready to lay siege to the city.

Because you’re a fool, she told herself grimly. If Balendin and the Urghul had broken through Ran il Tornja’s legions, she would have heard more than a few horses on the cobbles. She shifted her attention to the courtyard below.

Aergad was an old city, as old as Annur itself, and the castle she had taken for her own had been the ancestral seat of the kings who ruled the southern Romsdals long before the rise of her empire. Both the castle and the city walls looked their age. Though the builders had known their work, there had been no need to defend Aergad in more than a century, and Adare could see gaps in the tops of the ramparts, gaping spaces where ice had eaten away at the mortar, sending huge blocks of stone tumbling into the river below. She had ordered the walls repaired, but masons were scarce, and il Tornja needed them to the east, where he was fighting his months-long holding action against the Urghul.

Moonlight threw the jagged shapes of the southern wall onto the rough stones of the courtyard. The messenger was dismounting in the shadow; Adare could see his shape, and the shape of his horse, but no face, no uniform. She tried to read something in the posture, in the set of those shoulders, anything that would warn her of the message that he carried.

A whimper broke the night’s quiet, an infant’s cry from the room behind her. Grimacing, Adare turned away from the courtyard, to where Sanlitun hui’Malkeenian, the second of that name, twisted uneasily in his small wooden crib, disturbed by the hooves on the cobbles or by the cold northern air from the open window. Adare crossed to him quickly, hoping that he hadn’t truly awoken, that she could soothe him with a soft hand and a few words, that he would slide back into his slumber before she had to confront whatever news was coming.

“Shhh,” she whispered. “It’s all right, my little boy. Shh…”

Sometimes it was easy to soothe him. On the better nights, whispering meaningless comfort to her squirming child, Adare felt as though someone else was speaking, a woman who was older, slower, more certain, some other mother who understood nothing of politics or finance, who would fumble even simple figures, but who knew in her bones the soothing of a colicky child. Most times, however, she felt lost, baffled by her motherhood, desperate with her love for the tiny child and terrified by her inability to calm him. She would hold him close, whisper over and over into his ear, and his body would shudder itself still for a while. Then, when she thought the grief had passed, when she pulled back to study his face, his chest would heave, the sobs would force his small mouth wide, and the tears would well up all over again.

He had her eyes. Looking into them when he cried was like staring into a mountain pool and finding red-gold embers glowing unquenched beneath the water’s surface. Adare wondered if her own eyes looked the same behind tears. It seemed a long time since she had cried.

“Shh, my little boy,” she whispered, running the back of her fingers softly over his cheek. “It’s all right.”

Sanlitun screwed up his small face, strained against the swaddling, cried out once more, then subsided.

“It’s all right,” she whispered again.

Only when she returned to the window, when she looked out once more and saw the rider had moved into the moonlight, did she realize she was wrong. It was not all right. Maybe the child had known before she did who had come. Maybe it wasn’t the cold or the wind that had woken him at all, but some infant’s knowledge that his father was near, his father, the Csestriim, the kenarang, general of Adare’s shrinking empire, murderer of her own father, possibly a mortal foe, and one of her only allies. Ran il Tornja was here, striding across the courtyard, leaving a groom to lead away a horse that looked half dead. He glanced up toward her window, met her eyes, and saluted, a casual motion, almost dismissive.

This sudden arrival would have been odd enough in the daytime, but it was not daytime. It was well past midnight. Adare pulled the window closed, tried to still her sudden shivering, straightened her back, and turned to face the doors to her chamber, arranging her face before he entered.

 *   *   *

“You should have the men on the gate flogged,” il Tornja said as soon as he’d closed the door behind him. “Or killed. They checked to make certain it was me, but let my guardsmen pass without a second glance.”

He dropped into one wooden chair, shoved out another with the heel of a boot, put his feet up on it, and leaned back. The nighttime ride that had half killed his horse didn’t seem to have wearied the kenarang in the least. A little mud speckled his boots. The wind had been at his dark hair, but his green riding cloak and tailored uniform were immaculate. His polished sword belt gleamed. The gems laid into the hilt of his sword glittered with all the brightness of lies. Adare met his eyes.

“Are we so spoiled for soldiers that we can start knocking them off for minor infractions?”

Il Tornja raised his brows. “I’d hardly rate a lapse in the Emperor’s security a minor infraction.” He shook his head. “You should have my soldiers at the gate, not the Sons of Flame.”

“You need your men to fight the Urghul,” Adare pointed out, “unless you plan to prosecute this war all by yourself. The Sons are capable guardians. They let your men pass because they recognized you. They trust you.”

“Sanlitun trusted me,” he pointed out. “I put a knife in his back.” Adare’s breath caught like a hook in her throat. Her skin blazed.

My father, she reminded herself. He’s talking about my father, not my boy.

Il Tornja had murdered the Emperor, but he had no reason to harm the child, his own child. Still, the urge to turn in her chair, to see the infant sleeping safely behind her, settled on Adare as strongly as a pair of clutching hands. She forced it away.

“Your leash is shorter than it was when you killed my father,” she replied, meeting his eyes.

He smiled, raised a hand to his collarbone as though testing for the invisible cord of flame that Nira had set around his neck. Adare would have been a good deal more comforted if she could still see the ’Kent-kissing thing, but a writhing noose of fire would draw more than a few eyes, and she had enough problems without admitting her Mizran Councillor was a leach and her kenarang an untrusted murderer and a Csestriim on top of that. Nira insisted that the kenning was still in place, and that would have to be good enough.

“Such a light collar,” il Tornja said. “Sometimes I forget that it’s even there.”

“You don’t forget anything. Why are you here?”

“Aside from the chance to see my Emperor, my son, and the mother of my child?”

“Yes. Aside from that.”

“You’re less sentimental than I remember.”

“When sentiment feeds my troops, I’ll look into it. Why are you here?”

Behind her, Sanlitun stirred uneasily, whimpering at the sound of her raised voice. Il Tornja glanced over her shoulder, studying the child with something that might have been interest or amusement.

“He is healthy?”

Adare nodded. “He had a cough two weeks ago—that ’Shael-spawned wind off the Romsdals—but it’s mostly over now.”

“And you still keep him with you, even when you work?”

She nodded again. Prepared to defend herself. Again. Nine months since she first arrived in Aergad, an exile in her own empire. Six months since Sanlitun’s birth. Only six months, and yet it felt she hadn’t slept in a year, in a lifetime. Despite his name, Sanlitun had none of his grandfather’s calm, none of his stillness. Either he was hungry or he was wet, puking or fretful, clutching at her when awake, or kicking her as he slept.

“A wet nurse—” il Tornja began.

“I do not need a wet nurse.”

“Driving yourself into the dirt does no one any good,” he said slowly. “Not you, not our child, and certainly not our empire.”

My empire.”

He nodded, his smile barbed. “Your empire.”

“Women raise their own children all the time. Six children. Ten. I think I can manage a single baby boy.”

“Shepherds raise six children. Fishermen’s wives raise children. Women whose cares don’t extend beyond keeping the hearth lit and the sheep fed. You are the Emperor of Annur, Adare. You are a prophet. We are at war on two fronts, and we are losing. Fishermen’s wives have the luxury of caring for their own children. You do not.” He did a thing with his voice then, a shift in tone or register that, coming from anyone else, might have indicated a softening. “He is my child, too.…”

“Don’t speak to me,” she growled, sitting back in her chair, putting more air between them, “of your children. I know too well how you have gone about rearing them in the past.”

If she’d hoped to dent his armor, to knock his mask askew, she would have been disappointed. Il Tornja assembled the planes of his face into a regretful smile and shook his head again.

“That was a long time ago, Adare. Many thousands of years. It was a mistake, and one I have labored long to correct.” He gestured to Sanlitun, an unfolding of the palm at once paternal and impersonal. “He will not grow stronger or wiser from your coddling. He may not grow at all if you neglect everything else.”

“I am not neglecting everything else,” she snapped. “Do you see me sleeping? Nattering endless nonsense? I’m at my desk each morning before dawn and, as you can see, I’m still here.” She gestured to the papers. “When I put my seal on these treaties, our men will eat for another season. And when I’m done with these, there’s a stack of petitions from Raalte to address. I live in this room, and when I’m not here, I’m with Lehav reviewing our southern strategy, or reviewing the troops, or drafting letters.”

“And fortunately for us all,” il Tornja added smoothly, “you have your father’s brain. Even sleep-addled, even clutching a child to your breast, you think better than most Annurian emperors I have known.”

She ignored the compliment. Il Tornja’s praise seemed as genuine as the rest of him, and like the rest of him, it was false, weighed to the last hair, measured and parsed, distributed only where he thought it was needed, where it would be useful. The point, the heft of the statement, remained: she was doing her job.

“There you have it. I will raise Sanlitun and—”

The kenarang cut her off.

“We don’t need you to be better than most of your ancestors, Adare.” He paused, fixed her with his general’s stare. Not his real stare, thank Intarra, not the fathomless black gaze of Csestriim contemplation she had seen just the once above the battlefield of Andt-Kyl, but the other one, the one he had no doubt studied for generations—a hard look, but human. “We need you to be better than all of them. For that, you require rest. You must give up the child, at least occasionally.”

“I will do what needs doing,” she growled, doubt’s sick flower blossoming inside her even as she spoke.

The truth was, the past six months had been the most brutal of her life, days filled with impossible decisions, the nights an unending torment of Sanlitun’s screaming, her own fumbling with the blankets, drawing the child into her bed, murmuring to him, praying to Intarra and Bedisa that he would fall asleep once more. Most times he would take the nipple, suck greedily for a few heartbeats, then shove it away and begin bawling.

She had servants, of course, a dozen women seated just outside her chamber who would come darting in the moment Adare called, arms piled high with dry swaddling or new bedding. That much help she would accept, but sending the child away, training him to suck at another woman’s breast… that she could not ask of him. Or of herself. Even when she wanted to weep from exhaustion, from the flood of sleep-addled confusion brimming in her blood, she would look down at her child, at his fat cheek pressed against her swollen breast, and she would know as she knew any great truth about the world that she could not give him up.

She had watched her mother die, coughing her shredded lungs onto the softest silk. Adare had stood beside her father as he was laid into his tomb, imperial robes hiding his wounds. She had killed one brother herself, and was locked in a desperate, vicious war with the other. Her family had been whittled down to this one child. She glanced over to the crib where he slept, watched his small chest rise and fall, then turned back to il Tornja.

“Why are you here?” she asked for the third time, voice ripe to bursting with weariness. “I doubt you left the front, the fight, to discuss the finer points of my parenting.”

Il Tornja nodded, steepled his fingers, studied her for a moment, then nodded again.

“We have an opportunity,” he said finally.

Adare spread her hands. “If I don’t have time to raise my son, I certainly don’t have time for your fucking riddles.”

“The republic has offered to treat with you.”

Adare stared.

“My men intercepted the messenger—the man is waiting below. I wanted to talk to you before you saw him.”

Slowly, Adare told herself. Slowly. She studied il Tornja’s face, but could read nothing there.

“A messenger sent to whom?”

“To you.”

“And yet your men intercepted him. Hardly a model of trusting cooperation.”

Il Tornja waved a dismissive hand. “Intercepted. Tripped over. Escorted. They found him—”

“And they brought him to you,” Adare said, trying to keep a clamp on her anger, “instead of me. What are your men even doing in the south? The Sons have that front secured.”

“Staring fixedly in one direction is a good way to get dead, Adare. While I don’t doubt the devotion of the Sons to both their goddess and their prophet,” he inclined his head toward her slightly, “I learned long ago not to rely on units outside of my command. My men found the messenger, they came to me, and when I learned his message, I came directly to you.” He shook his head. “Everything is not a conspiracy, Adare.”

“You’ll pardon me if that doesn’t ring true.” She leaned back in her chair, ran her hands through her hair, forced herself to focus on the heart of the matter. “Fine. A messenger. From the republic.”

“An offer to negotiate. To make peace. From the sound of it, they’re starting to understand that their government of the people isn’t working out.”

“How perspicacious of them. It only took nine months, the loss of two atrepies, the deaths of tens of thousands, and the specter of widespread starvation to bring the failure to their attention.”

“They want you back. An emperor on the Unhewn Throne again. They want to heal the rift.”

Adare narrowed her eyes, forced herself to breathe evenly, to think through the situation before speaking. It was tempting, so tempting. It was also impossible.

“There’s no way,” she said, shaking her head. “No way that forty-five of Annur’s most rich and vicious aristocrats are going to give up their newfound power. Even if the city were burning down around them, even if the palace was on fire, they wouldn’t change course. They hate me too much.”

“Well…” Il Tornja drew out the word with an apologetic shrug. “They don’t want to give up their power. Not exactly. They want you back as a sort of figurehead, but they want to keep making the laws, deciding the policy. They say bark, you woof obligingly—that sort of thing.…”

Adare slammed a palm down on the table, more violently than she’d intended.

Sanlitun squirmed in his crib, and she paused, waiting for his slow, shallow breathing to resume before speaking.

“Their fucking policies,” she hissed, “are destroying Annur, gutting the empire from the inside out. Their policies are killing people. And now they want me to be complicit in their shit?”

“As far as I understand it, they want you to be more than complicit. They want you to perch atop the pile and grin.”

“I won’t do it,” she said, shaking her head.

He raised an eyebrow. “There was a time, not so many months ago, when you thought there might be room to negotiate with the council, when you were sending the messengers to them.”

“Messengers that they imprisoned. Good men who might be dead now for all I know. I used to think the rift could be healed. Not anymore. It’s too late.”

Il Tornja frowned, as though tasting food gone slightly bad. “Too late is not a phrase that should ever pass an emperor’s lips.”

“I would think an emperor is served by facing the truth rather than running from it.”

“By all means! Confront the hard truths! Just do it in private. You don’t want to plant fear in the hearts of those who follow you.”

“I couldn’t plant fear in your heart if I was sowing it with a shovel.”

“I’m not talking about me.”

“You’re the only one here.”

“You have to practice your face, Adare,” he said. “All the time.”

She opened her mouth to object, but he raised his hands, forestalling her. “I didn’t come here to quarrel. I came here because this is an opportunity.”

“An opportunity for what? To give up everything we’ve been fighting for the past nine months? To let the idiots destroy what’s left of Annur?”

“It is Annur that I’m trying to save,” il Tornja said, suddenly grave. “I need you to go back. To heal the rift between the empire and the republic. I would not ask if it were not necessary.”

Adare frowned. “You’re losing,” she said finally.

The kenarang nodded, then shrugged. “Even genius has limits. My armies are stretched thin as yesterday’s smoke. The Urghul outnumber us, they fight beside an emotion leach, and are led by a god.”

“You still believe Long Fist is Meshkent,” Adare said, trying for the hundredth time to wrap her mind around the notion. Failing for the hundredth time.

“I’m more convinced than ever.”

“How do you know? Explain it.”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

Adare bridled at the remark. “Try.”

The kenarang spread his hands. “The… shape of his attacks. The rhythm of them.” He rose, crossing to the map. “He hit us here and here at exactly the same time. Then, half a day later, here, here, and here. All that time, another group was sweeping west, to arrive at Irfeth’s Ford just when the first group had retreated.”

Adare glanced at the map, the scattering of positions il Tornja had indicated. The events were clear enough, but the pattern—if there was even a pattern—meant nothing. He waved a conciliatory hand. “The human mind was not built for this.”

She stared at the rivers and mountains, the forests, the small lines indicating armies and positions, willing herself to find some shape in the attacks. “He did something smart?” she asked finally.

The general shrugged. “Not particularly.”

Adare suppressed a growl. “Then what?”

“He did something… inhuman.”

“Humans are all different,” Adare said, shaking her head. “There’s no such thing as a ‘human’ line of attack. A hundred generals would make a hundred different decisions.”

“No. They would not.” He smiled, a wide, bright smile. “Sometimes you forget, Adare, that I have fought against thousands of human generals. Two thousand and eight, if you care for the precise figure. You like to think you are unique, that each man and woman is different from the one before, but you are wrong. In all those battles, all those wars, I saw the same things, over and over, the same handful of little tricks, the same set of clumsy gambits and tactics played over and over again with tiny, irrelevant variation. I know the lineaments of a human attack, and this is not that. Long Fist is Meshkent. You can take my word for it. He wants to spread his bloody worship through Vash and Eridroa, and, much though it galls me to admit it, he is winning.”

“I thought you said he wasn’t brilliant.”

“He doesn’t need to be, when his army outnumbers mine twenty to one. I need more men, Adare. I need the Sons of Flame. And I need a secure southern front. At least until the war is over.” He smiled wolfishly.

Adare studied her general. The kenarang looked hungry. His eyes were fixed on her, lips parted just enough to show the shadow of teeth. He looked ready to smile or snarl, ready to bite. Of all his carefully cultivated human expressions, this one was easiest to believe. Beneath all the casual banter and bright buckles, Ran il Tornja was a predator, a killer, the greatest general Annur had ever known, and this killer’s face stretched across his features seemed right, true.

Nothing he shows you is true, she reminded herself.

He had peeled away one mask, that was all. This hunger and savagery was just one more face beneath all the other faces, a better, subtler act, one she wanted to believe. She could understand the brutal slashing and biting for power. She could control it. The truth of il Tornja, however, was no simple animal snarl. It was something else, something older and worse waiting beneath all the faces, something awful and inhuman, unfathomable as the space between the light of the stars.

Fear crept over her skin, raising the fine hairs on her arm. With an effort, she suppressed a shudder, forced herself to meet his eyes.

“And when it’s over?” she asked.

“Once Meshkent is defeated and the Urghul are driven back…” He smiled wider, pushed back until his chair was balancing on two legs, poised between falling and falling. “Well, then we can look into—how should we say it? The long-term viability of the republican experiment…”

“And by look into,” Adare said flatly, “you mean kill everyone who doesn’t want me back.”

“Well…” He spread his hands. “We could kill a few at a time until the others recall the golden glory of Malkeenian rule.”

Adare shook her head. “It feels wrong. The great emperors of Annur, the ones who presided over a peaceful empire, punished treachery and rewarded those who stayed loyal. I’ve read the Chronicles. Now you want me to turn a blind eye to the treason and idiocy of this ’Kent-kissing council?”

The kenarang smiled. “I’m in the Chronicles, Adare. I wrote two of them. The great emperors of Annur were great because they did what they needed to do. Whatever they needed to do. Of course, you’ll be putting your own life on the line.…”

Adare waved a dismissive hand. He was right enough about the risks. It would be easy to arrive in Annur, present herself to the council, then be hauled off promptly to her own execution. The thought made her palms sweat, but there was no point dwelling on it. She’d visited the front, traveled to villages just after Urghul raids, seen the bodies carved open; the corpses spitted on stakes; the charred remains of men, and women, and children, some still sprawled over makeshift altars, others tossed into haphazard piles—the horrifying remnants of what the Urghul called worship.

Annur—imperial, republican, it hardly mattered—all of Annur was teetering at the edge of a bloody abyss, and she was the Emperor. She had taken that title, had demanded it, not so she could primp atop an uncomfortable throne to the flattery of courtiers, but because she’d believed she could do a good job, a better job, certainly, than the man who had murdered her father. She’d taken the title because she thought she could make life better for the millions inside the empire, protect them, bring peace and prosperity.

And so far, she’d failed.

It didn’t matter that Kaden had made an even worse hash of things. It didn’t matter that she was the first emperor in centuries to face a barbarian invasion. It didn’t matter that even her father had failed to predict the chaos that enveloped them all. She had taken the title; it was her job to set things right, to mend the rents dividing Annur. Kaden’s council might have her torn limb from limb if she returned, but they might not. If she returned, there was a chance—and the chance to save Annur, to save the people of Annur, to push back the barbarians and restore some measure of peace, of order, was worth the possibility of her own bloodless head decorating a stake.

“There is something else,” il Tornja added. “Something you will discover when you reach the city.” He paused. “Your brother has made a friend.”

“We do that,” Adare replied. “Humans. We form attachments, develop feelings for people, that sort of thing.”

“If he had befriended a human, I wouldn’t be concerned. The third Annurian representative to the council, the man who goes by the name of Kiel— he is not a man. He is one of my kind.”

Adare stared stupidly. “Kaden has a Csestriim?”

Il Tornja chuckled. “Kiel is not a horse or a hunting dog, Adare. I have known him for millennia, and I can assure you, if anyone has anyone, it is Kiel who has your brother, who has possessed his mind and poisoned his will.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Adare demanded.

“I only just realized the truth myself. When I didn’t recognize the name of the third Annurian delegate, I asked for a painting and description. Unfortunately, the fool responsible sent back a gorgeously inked parchment depicting the wrong person—one of the Kreshkan delegation, evidently. I discovered the error only recently.”

Adare scrambled to make sense of the revelation. Il Tornja was a weapon, an instrument of destruction. She had him collared and brought to heel, and still she worried that she’d overlooked something, that one day she would give a tug on his leash only to find it gone terribly slack. Learning that there was another Csestriim in the world, one allied with her brother, one over whom she had no control whatsoever… it made her stomach churn.

“Kiel was the one who drafted the republican constitution,” she observed.

Il Tornja nodded. “He has never been a lover of your empire. In fact, for hundreds of years he has labored to destroy it. Every important coup, every plot against Malkeenian rule—he was behind it.”

“Except for yours, of course. Except for the coup when you killed my father.”

He smiled. “Yes. Except for that.”

Adare studied him, hoping again to read something in those unreadable eyes, to see the gleam of a lie or the hard light of truth. As usual, there was plenty to see. As usual, she couldn’t trust any of it.

“You’re worried that Kaden knows who you are,” she said.

“I am certain that Kaden knows who I am. Kiel has told him.”

Behind her, Sanlitun twisted in his crib and cried out. For a moment, Adare had a horrible vision of the Urghul pouring over the bridge, the paleskinned horsemen shattering the castle walls, smashing into her room, seizing the child.…

She stood abruptly, turned so that il Tornja couldn’t see her face, and crossed the room to the crib. She watched her son a moment, watched him breathe, then lifted him gently into her arms. When she was certain she’d mastered her expression, she turned back to the kenarang.

“I’ll go,” she said wearily. “I’ll try to mend the breach. I can’t promise more than that.”

Il Tornja smiled, teeth bright in the lamplight. “Mending first. Later, perhaps, we can see to more… permanent solutions.”

 

3

Last-Mortal-Bond-UKThey wanted you,” Maut Amut said. “The attackers wanted you.”

Kaden paused in his climb, leaned against the banister as he caught his breath, then shook his head. “You can’t be sure of that.”

Amut continued on, taking the stairs two at a time, indifferent to the gleaming weight of his Aedolian steel. He reached the next landing before realizing that Kaden had fallen behind.

“My apologies, First Speaker,” he said, bowing his head. “My shame makes me impatient.”

The guardsman fixed his eyes on the stairs, settled a hand on the pommel of his broadblade, and waited. Even at his most animated, the First Shield of the Aedolian Guard was a stiff man, marmoreal, all right angles and propriety. Standing there motionless, waiting for Kaden to regain his strength, he looked like something carved, or hammered out on an anvil.

Kaden shook his head again. “You don’t need to apologize for the fact that I’ve gone soft.”

Amut didn’t move. “Intarra’s Spear is a daunting climb, even for hard men.”

“It’s only thirty floors to my study,” Kaden replied, forcing his legs into motion once more. He made the climb almost every day, but always at a leisurely pace. More and more leisurely, he now realized, as the months had passed. Amut, on the other hand, had pushed hard since they left the council chamber, and Kaden’s legs had begun to burn by the tenth floor. He put from his mind for the moment the grim fact that he planned to climb well beyond the Spear’s thirtieth floor.

“When I lived with the monks,” he said, pausing again when he reached Amut’s landing, “a climb like this would have been a rest, a respite.”

“You are the First Speaker of the republic. You have more important things to do than tire yourself on the stairs.”

“You’re the First Shield of the Aedolian Guard,” Kaden countered, “and you find the time to run these stairs every morning.” He’d seen the man training a few times, always well before dawn, always in full armor with a bag of sand across his shoulders, hammering up the steps, his face a mask of determination.

“I run them every morning,” Amut replied grimly, “and still I failed in my duty.”

Kaden turned away from the stairs above to face the guardsman. He made his voice hard.

“Enough of your shame. I am alive. The council is safe. This self-reproach is an indulgence, one that will shed no light on what happened here.”

Amut glanced up at him, ground his teeth, then nodded. “As you say, First Speaker.”

“Talk while we climb,” Kaden said. There were still fifteen more floors before they reached the study. “More slowly, this time. What happened up here?”

Hand still on his sword, Amut started up again. He spoke without turning his head, as though addressing the empty staircase before him.

“Someone infiltrated the palace.”

“Not hard,” Kaden observed. “There must be a thousand people who come through the gates every day—servants, messengers, merchants, carters.…”

“Then they gained access to the Spear.”

Kaden tried to puzzle that through. There was only one entrance to Intarra’s Spear, a high, arched doorway burned or carved or quarried from the unscratchable ironglass of the tower walls. Aedolians guarded it day and night.

“Your men below…”

“The Spear is hardly a sealed fortress. Imperial…” Amut shook his head, then corrected himself. “Republican business is conducted here. People come and go. My men at the door are tasked with stopping obvious threats, but they cannot stop everyone, not without causing untold disruption.”

Kaden nodded, seeing the outlines of the problem.

Intarra’s Spear was ancient, older than human memory, even older than the most venerable Csestriim records. The architects of the Dawn Palace had constructed their fortress around it without knowing who had built the tower itself, or how, or why. Kaden had dim childhood memories of his sister reading tome after tome exploring the mystery, codex after codex, each one with a theory, an argument, something that seemed like evidence. Sometimes, Adare, Sanlitun had finally told her, you must accept that there are limits to knowledge. It is possible that we will never know the true story of the Spear.

And all the time, of course, he had known.

“I told your father the Spear’s purpose,” Kiel had said to Kaden months earlier, only days after they reclaimed the Dawn Palace, “just as I will tell you now.”

The two of them—the First Speaker of the fledgling Annurian Republic and the deathless Csestriim historian—had been sitting cross-legged in the shadow of a bleeding willow, at the edge of a small pond in the Dowager’s Garden. A breeze rucked the green-brown water; light winked from the tiny waves. The willow’s trailing branches splattered shadows. Kaden waited.

“The tower is,” the historian continued, “at its very top, an altar, a sacred space, a place where this world touches that of the gods.”

Kaden shook his head. “I have stood on the tower’s top a dozen times. There is air, cloud, nothing more.”

Kiel gestured to a narrow insect striding the water’s surface. The pond’s water dimpled beneath the creature’s meager weight. It twitched long, eyelashthin legs, skimming from darkness to light, then back into darkness.

“To the strider,” he said, “that water is unbreakable. She will never puncture the surface. She will never know the truth.”

“Truth?”

“That there is another world—dark, vast, incomprehensible—sliding beneath the skin of the world she knows. Her mind is not built to understand this truth. Depth means nothing to her. Wet means nothing. Most of the time, when she looks at the water, she sees the trees reflected back, or the sun, or the sky. She knows nothing of the pond’s weight, the way it presses on whatever slips beneath that surface.”

The insect moved across the reflection of Intarra’s Spear.

“The reflection of the tower is not the tower,” Kiel continued, then turned away from the pond and the water strider both. Kaden followed his gaze. For a long time, the two of them studied the gleaming mystery at the heart of the Dawn Palace. “This tower, too,” Kiel said at last, gesturing to the sun-bright lance dividing the sky above them, “is only a reflection.”

Kaden shook his head. “A reflection of what?”

“The world beneath our world. Or above it. Beside it. Prepositions were not built to carry this truth. Language is a tool, like a hammer or an ax. There are tasks for which it is ill suited.”

Kaden turned back to the water. The water strider was gone. “And the gods can pass beneath the surface inside the tower?”

Kiel nodded. “We learned this too late in the long war against your people. Two of our warriors stumbled across the ritual, but by the time they had climbed to the tower’s top, the gods were gone. Only the human carcasses remained.”

“The human vessels of the young gods,” Kaden said after a moment’s thought.

Kiel nodded.

How?”

“The obviate. The ritual Ciena demanded when Triste put the knife to her own chest.”

Kaden frowned. “How does it work?”

“This,” the historian replied, “my people were unable to learn. The tower is a gate, this much we know, but it seems that only the gods hold the keys.”

A gate for the gods, Kaden thought grimly as he climbed the stairs behind Maut Amut, his own breath hot and snarled in his chest. There was nothing to say that whoever had broken into the Spear earlier in the day understood that truth. Then again, there was nothing to say they didn’t.

Carefully, deliberately, he stepped clear of that avenue of thought. He could hear Scial Nin speaking, the old abbot’s voice calm and quiet: Consider the task at hand, Kaden. The more you try to see, the less you will notice.

“The attackers could have posed as slaves or ministers,” Amut was saying. “Visiting diplomats, almost anything…”

It made sense. Most of the Spear was empty—an unbreakable gleaming shell—but the earliest Annurian emperors had built inside that shell, constructing thirty wooden floors—thirty floors inside a tower that could have accommodated ten times that number—before giving up, leaving the thousands of feet above them vacant and echoing. The lowest of those human levels were given over to pedestrian concerns: ministerial offices and audience chambers, a great circular dining room affording views over the entire palace. Three whole floors were devoted to suites for visiting dignitaries, men and women who would return home to boast of their nights spent in the tallest structure in the world, a tower surely built by the gods. And then, of course, there was all the necessary service apparatus and the cooks, slaves, and servants such service entailed.

If anything, Amut had understated the case—there was constant traffic in and out of the Spear, and no way for the Aedolians to search everyone on every floor. The attackers, however, hadn’t been skulking around in the kitchens. Somehow, they had gained the thirtieth floor, a place that was supposed to be secure.

“What happened at my study?” Kaden asked.

Amut’s voice was tight when he responded. “They took down the three men I had posted there.”

Kaden looked over at the First Shield. “Killed them?”

Amut shook his head curtly. “Incapacitated. They were knocked unconscious, but otherwise unharmed.”

“Who,” Kaden wondered, slowing on the stairs, “could get past three Aedolians at their post?”

“I don’t know,” Amut replied, his jaw rigid, as though trying to hold back the words. “That is what I intend to find out.”

“I’m starting to see,” Kaden said, glancing down the stairs behind them, “why you think they’re dangerous.”

When they finally reached the study, it was aswarm with Aedolians. Kaden glanced through the doorway. The guardsmen seemed to be cleaning up, mostly, putting codices back on the shelves, furling maps, rolling out the massive Si’ite rug.

“It’s clear?” Kaden asked.

His shoulders were tight, he realized, and his back, as though he were expecting some assassin’s knife at the base of the neck, some snare to cinch closed around his ankles. He took a moment to ease the tension.

See the fact, not the fear.

The study was the same as it always had been—a huge, semicircular room filling half the floor. The curving ironglass wall offered an unparalleled view of Annur, and for the most part Sanlitun had done nothing to obscure that view. Bookshelves lined the interior wall, and massive tables stood in the center of the space, but along the smooth arc of that unbreakable wall there was almost nothing: just a table with two chairs and an antique ko board, a simple plinth holding a fossil, a dwarf blackpine in a pot, trunk withered and twisted.

“I’ve had my men go over it a dozen times,” Amut said, following him inside as the Aedolians filed silently out. “I checked for every trap I know how to set, then had the dogs here all afternoon sniffing for poisons. We went through every drawer, scroll, and codex looking for munitions.” He shook his head. “There’s nothing. It’s clear.”

“Too clear.”

Kaden turned at the voice to find Kiel standing by a far bookshelf, running a finger over the wooden frame.

“In your search for traps, you have obliterated any sign of the intruders.”

Amut’s fingers tightened on the pommel of his sword. “There was no sign. They were good. Better than good.”

Kiel considered the Aedolian a moment, then nodded. There was no concern on his face, only curiosity. It had been that way even in the Dead Heart, when the historian was still caged deep in the bedrock of a forgotten fortress by madmen bent on exterminating the last members of his kind. Kiel had learned to feign emotion well enough, but most of the time he didn’t bother. People considered him an eccentric genius, but then, Annur was filled with eccentrics and geniuses.

Kaden watched the historian as he crossed the room, his stride marred by a slight hitch, where something broken inside him had mended imperfectly. Kiel had walked the world for millennia, but his face, sober and barely lined, might have belonged to a man in his fourth or fifth decade. Eventually, he would need to leave the council and the palace, probably need to leave Annur altogether before someone noticed that he never changed, never aged.

Provided we’re not all dead before that happens, Kaden amended silently.

“So why did they come?” the historian asked.

“Theft,” Amut replied. “It has to be.”

Kaden raised his eyebrows. “Is anything missing?”

“I wouldn’t know, First Speaker. Aedolians are guards. We stand outside the door. Now that we are sure the study is clear, I hoped you might shed some light on what was inside. Something missing?”

“All right,” Kaden replied. He crossed to the middle of the room, turned in a slow circle. “Seems safe enough. Nothing’s killed me yet.”

“It is the safest room in the Dawn Palace right now,” Amut said. “I would stake my life on it.”

Kaden shook his head. “And just how safe,” he asked quietly, “is the Dawn Palace?”

 *   *   *

Only when Maut Amut left the room did Kaden turn to Kiel once more.

“What do you think?”

The Csestriim considered the closed bloodwood door. “It was by observing men like that Aedolian that I learned the meaning of your human word pride.”

“I meant about the study. You think Amut was right? That it was all some sort of elaborate theft?”

The historian shook his head. “It is impossible to say. The guardsmen moved everything.”

Kaden nodded. He visited the study nearly every day, could, with a moment of thought, call up a reasonable image of the half-round room, but he’d never bothered with a formal saama’an. The spines on the codices in his memory were hazy, the arrangement of the scrolls imperfect. Still, it would have been a decent place to start if the Aedolians hadn’t been at the chamber for the better part of the morning. Kaden considered the mental image for a few heartbeats, then let it go, focusing on the room itself.

The sun was setting, sagging down the western sky until it hung just above Annur’s rooftops. No one had yet bothered to light the room’s lamps, but enough daylight remained for a cursory inspection. Instead of turning to the tables or the shelves, however, Kaden crossed to the wall overlooking the city, to a small section of the bloodwood floor that was polished to higher shine than the rest. It wasn’t hard to imagine Sanlitun sitting there, the last true emperor of Annur, cross-legged in the way of the monks who had trained him. Kaden let his own thoughts go, trying to slide into the mind of his murdered father.

Annur was the largest city in the world’s largest empire, home to more than two million men, women, and children; their homes and shops, temples and taverns all built shoulder to shoulder. People ate and fought there, loved, lied, and died—all within a few paces of their neighbors, no more than a cracked teak wall between the pain of a laboring mother and the lovers locked in a hot embrace. After the emptiness of Ashk’lan, the space and the silence, it was all… too much, even inside the Dawn Palace. Kaden could inhabit his father’s desire to climb out of the wash of humanity, above it, could imagine Sanlitun ignoring the heavy wooden chairs to sit on the bare floor, eyes closed, blind to the city that surged and hummed beyond those clear, unbreakable walls.…

He let the beshra’an go.

Maybe that wasn’t it at all. Maybe that particular patch of floor had been worn smooth by something else, something irrelevant—one of the silver smoke cats that prowled the palace, or a small table shifted a thousand times in cleaning. Kaden could see his father sitting there still and silent as a Shin monk perched on a granite ledge above Ashk’lan. He could see it, but he’d never actually seen it. Sanlitun was a shadow, a dim shape cast on the present by the things he’d left behind.

Kaden turned from the memories of his father and the sight of the sprawling city he had ruled to consider the room once more. The Aedolians had been neat in their search, stacking the loose papers in piles on the tables, returning the codices to the shelves with the spines perfectly aligned. The soldiers did not, however, have Kiel’s memory or Kaden’s. He sighed as he crossed to the nearest table, flipped through a few pages, then let them fall.

“I’m not sure I kept anything here worth stealing,” he said.

“There were pages detailing troop movements,” Kiel replied. “Supply lists.”

Kaden shook his head. “There are easier places to find those papers. No need to infiltrate the Spear itself. No need to subdue three Aedolians.” He paused, trying to make sense of it. “This was something different. Something… more.” He glanced at the heavy door—three inches of banded bloodwood with Aedolian guardsmen just beyond it. Only a madman would try to get past that. A madman, or someone very, very determined. “It was il Tornja, wasn’t it?”

“We have reliable reports of your sister’s kenarang in the north, but his reach is long.”

Kaden nodded slowly. “He knew this study. He’s been here. If he needed something, he would know where to look, and he knows the kind of people who could manage something like this.” Kaden hesitated before saying the rest. “And, like you, he knows the truth about the Spear. What it is for.”

Kiel inclined his head slowly. “He does.”

A cold weight settled in Kaden’s chest. He glanced up, as though he could see through the ceiling, through thousands of feet of empty air that waited in the tower above, through the steel floor of the cage dangling there, to where a young woman with black hair and violet eyes, a woman of impossible beauty, a priestess and a murderer, a human with a goddess trapped inside her flesh, waited in chains to meet her fate.

“We have to get Triste out,” he said finally. “We have to find a way to do it now and do it safely. If il Tornja can get into this study, he can get into the prison.”

“And yet it is only atop this tower that the girl can do what must be done,” Kiel replied.

“She doesn’t know how. And even if she did, she wouldn’t do it.” He had explained to her the truth. They’d been over it a dozen times, to no avail. “There’s no point keeping her in the Spear if she can’t perform the obviate, if she won’t. Everyone knows she’s in the prison, and even if no one has attacked her yet, they will.”

“All of this is true,” Kiel replied, his eyes going distant. After a long pause, the Csestriim turned away, crossed to the small table that still held Sanlitun’s ko board. He seated himself in one of the two chairs facing it. Kaden watched. He had spent enough time around Kiel since their flight from the Dead Heart to have grown used to these lapses. Even after thousands of years lived among humans, generations chronicling their lives, habits, and histories, beneath his unremarkable manner, behind that human façade, Kiel’s rhythms of speech and thought remained alien, unknowable. Kaden schooled himself to patience, watching as the Csestriim removed the lids from the twin boxes and began playing, one side against the other, the only sound the quiet click of the stones against the board: white, then black, then white, over and over.

A stranger would have imagined Kiel preoccupied. Kaden knew better. The man played ko easily as breathing. He could go through entire games without looking at the board, and he never, ever lost. Whatever private war he was waging against himself, it had nothing to do with the game itself.

After forty moves, he paused, studied the stones a moment, then looked over at Kaden, picking up the thread of the conversation as though he had never dropped it.

“It is possible that il Tornja wants you to move her. That this entire episode was engineered to force you to move her.”

Kaden frowned at the board, as though there were some sort of answer in the sprawling patterns. “To strike at her when she’s outside the prison.”

Kiel nodded. “Right now, Triste is the most securely guarded person in this republic. Someone who wants to attack her, even someone who manages to get inside the Dawn Palace, still has to go through five locked doors and twenty guardsmen. It is not an inconsiderable obstacle.”

“They got in here.”

“One door,” Kiel pointed out. “Three guards. Today’s attack could be no more than a feint, an attempt to make you panic. He will come for Triste eventually, but he will not have to come for her if you give her up.”

“And if we keep her here,” Kaden said, “when he finishes with Long Fist in the north, he can come for her at his leisure.”

Kiel nodded.

Frustration gnawed at the edge of Kaden’s calm. “So if we move her, we lose. If we keep her, we lose.”

“It all returns to the obviate. You must convince her. She may not know the way, but the goddess inside her knows.”

“The ritual will kill her,” Kaden said. “That’s what your warriors found all those millennia ago, right?”

Kiel didn’t blink. “She is Ciena’s prison.”

“She is a person, not a prison. She didn’t ask for Ciena to inhabit her flesh, and she certainly hasn’t volunteered to undergo a slaughter intended to set the goddess free. It is murder.”

“It is sacrifice,” Kiel corrected him. “To the goddess. For the goddess.”

“And how do we know,” Kaden asked, “that killing Triste won’t annihilate Ciena’s touch on our world anyway? That’s what il Tornja wants to do, right?”

“Method matters. The obviate is not a murder, it is a ritual, one in which Triste consents to let go of her goddess. This is not a knife in the dark. It gives Ciena the time to depart the human flesh whole and unbroken. The obviate lays down the safe path she will take out of this world.”

“At least that’s what you believe,” Kaden said, staring at the Csestriim.

Kiel nodded fractionally. “It is what I believe. It is what happened with the young gods.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

“Then I am wrong. We act on the information we have.”

Kaden watched the historian a moment, then looked away, out over the darkened rooftops of Annur. Without a word, he slipped outside his own emotion and into the unending emptiness of the vaniate. He could do it at will now, could manage it walking, even talking. Scial Nin’s words came back to him, spoken directly across the space of the intervening year: You would have made a good monk.

Inside the trance, all pressure fell away. There was no urgency, no worry—only fact. Il Tornja would find a way to murder Triste, or he would not. She would agree to perform the obviate, or she would not. They would find a way to rescue the trapped goddess, or they would not. And if they failed, if all pleasure vanished from the world, how would that be any different from the vast peace of the vaniate?

“Come out of that, Kaden,” Kiel said. “You should not spend so much time so fully severed from yourself.”

Kaden hesitated inside the stillness. The vaniate had frightened him at first, the hugeness of it, the indifference, the cool, absolute smoothness. That fear was, he thought now, the way that one of the Annurians below, a man raised his whole life inside the hum and throb of the city, might feel were he to wake one clear morning on a glacier in the Bone Mountains: a terror of too much space, of too much nothing, of not enough self to fill the gap between snow and sky. Only, Kaden felt at home on the glacier now. He found, when the world grew too loud, too close, that he was unwilling to leave that infinite blank.

“Kaden.” Kiel’s voice again, sharper this time. “Let it go.”

Reluctantly, Kaden stepped out of the emptiness and into the cloister of his own irritation.

“You live inside it all the time,” he pointed out, careful to keep the emotion from his voice.

Kiel nodded. “Our minds were built for it. Yours is not.”

“Meaning what?”

The Csestriim didn’t reply at once. Instead, he rose, lit a lamp, then another. Light filled the room, warm as water, pressing out against the ironglass of the Spear. Only when the room was fully lit did he return to his chair, studying the ko board intently before he sat. After a pause, he placed a white stone, then a black, then another white. Kaden couldn’t make sense of any of the moves. It seemed as though Kiel had forgotten his question, or ignored it, but finally the historian looked up.

“You saw what happened to the Ishien,” he said quietly. “To some of them.”

Kaden nodded slowly. His weeks as a prisoner in their damp stone cells were not the sort of thing a person forgot, even one better equipped for forgetting than Kaden himself. He could still see Trant’s wide, agitated eyes, could still watch Ekhard Matol screaming spittle one moment, smiling that wide, awful smile the next. They were insane, all of them. They had tried to kill Kaden twice, once in the labyrinthine tunnels of the Dead Heart, and once on a sun-bright island ringed with kenta, awash in a wide sea. For all he knew, they were still trying to find a way to get at him. And yet…

“The Ishien aren’t the Shin,” Kaden replied. “Their methods…” He hesitated, remembering the scars, the descriptions of self-inflicted torment. “Those methods would break anyone.”

“Yes,” Kiel said, nudging another stone into place, “and no. The Shin discipline provides a gentler, subtler path, but the destination is the same. The vaniate is like… the deep sea. You can dive deeper and deeper, but the ocean is not your home. Stay down too long and it will crush you. Surely you heard of this happening among the monks?”

For months, Kaden had tried to put all thought of Ashk’lan from his mind. The memories of sky and silence were tangled up too tightly with the killing that came later. The truth that he could have done nothing to save the monks, to save Pater, or Akiil, or Scial Nin, sat too closely to that other, harder truth, that he had done nothing. It was easier to dwell on his failures here in Annur.

“Did none of the Shin let go when you were among them?” Kiel asked.

Kaden stared at the board, unwilling to meet the other man’s gaze. “Let go?”

“My people had a phrase for it: Ix acma. It means ‘Without self. Without center.’ ”

“I thought that was the whole point,” Kaden protested. “I must have recited the mantra a hundred thousand times: The mind is a flame. Blow it out.”

“It is a vivid figure of speech, but it lacks precision. The flame, if we keep to the figure, dims, it wavers, but it continues to burn. You need your emotions. They keep you… tethered to this world.”

“The walking away,” Kaden said quietly.

Kiel nodded. “That was what they called it when last I visited Ashk’lan.”

One of the Shin had walked away just a few months after Kaden first arrived in the mountains. Little was made of the event. The monk—Kaden was still too young, too untrained to recall his name—had simply stood up in the meditation hall one afternoon, nodded to the others seated there, then walked into the mountains. Akiil, always the curious one, had demanded to know what would happen to him, when he would come back. Scial Nin just shook his head. “He will not come back.” It was not a cause for sorrow nor for celebration. A man, one of their own, was gone, absent, his stone cell in the dormitory suddenly empty. But then, the Shin had lived with emptiness a long time.

“I always thought that the ones who walked away were the failures,” Kaden said. “That they were the ones who couldn’t take it. You’re telling me they were the only ones to really master the vaniate? To enter it fully?”

“Success or failure,” Kiel said, eyeing the board, “depend very much on one’s goals. A cold death in the mountains would not be accounted a success by many of your kind, but those who walked away found what they sought. They blew out the flame.”

“And the rest? Rampuri Tan and Scial Nin and all the others?”

Kiel looked up. “They did not. You do not live long, any of you, severed from your emotions.”

“Which is why il Tornja wants to cut that cord. Why he’s so intent on killing Ciena and Meshkent.”

The historian nodded.

Kaden blew out a long, slow breath. “I’ll go talk to Triste.”

“What will you say?”

It was a good question. A crucial question. Kaden could only shake his head, mute.

Excerpted from The Last Mortal Bond © Brian Staveley, 2016

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