Soleri

The ruling family of the Soleri Empire has been in power longer than even the calendars that stretch back 2,826 years. Those records tell a history of conquest and domination by a people descended from gods, older than anything in the known world. No living person has seen them for centuries, yet their grip on their four subjugate kingdoms remains tighter than ever.

On the day of the annual eclipse, the Harkan king, Arko-Hark Wadi, sets off on a hunt and shirks his duty rather than bow to the emperor. Ren, his son and heir, is a prisoner in the capital, while his daughters struggle against their own chains. Merit, the eldest, has found a way to stand against imperial law and marry the man she desires, but needs her sister’s help, and Kepi has her own ideas.

Meanwhile, Sarra Amunet, Mother Priestess of the sun god’s cult, holds the keys to the end of an empire and a past betrayal that could shatter her family.

Michael Johnston’s Soleri is the first in a new epic fantasy series inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear—it is a world of ancient and elaborate rites, of unseen power and kingdoms ravaged by war, where victory comes with a price, and every truth conceals a deeper secret. Available June 13th from Tor Books. Get acquainted with sisters Merit and Kepi in the chapters below, and head back to Chapter 1 to meet their brother Ren.

 

 

Chapter 2

“Dear friends,” Merit Hark-Wadi said, projecting her voice across the stadium so that each person in the arena could hear her words, “people of Harkana, honored guests from Feren, on this last day of the feast, I wish each of you a good death.” The crowd applauded as she sat back down on her father’s chair. Adjusting her finely pleated dress, it occurred to her that she did not truly wish each of them a good a death. After all, it was the bloody deaths that made the crowds cheer loudest.

“May you honor Sola with your presence, and Harkana with your blood,” she said as she waved to each of the combatants, her eyes lingering on a tall and powerfully built Feren warrior in silver armor. Merit settled back into her chair. The first daughter of Harkana was a woman of regal bearing and a cool, calculating gaze. She was a de cade past coming into her womanhood but still a grand beauty at six and twenty, with long black hair that fell in thick ebony waves down her back, bronze skin, and full pink lips. Dressed in a dyed-blue linen so new it sweated color on her elbows and ankles, giving her elegant limbs a shadowy, bruised look, she raised one silver-bangled arm and waited—for the sounds of the crowd to die down, for a silence that she deemed sufficiently respectful of her place and position.

“Take arms and let the contest begin,” Merit said.

The warriors saluted with a dip of their swords, first toward the visitors from the neighboring kingdom of Feren as a measure of respect, then the Harkans. Only a handful of them would survive the ring, and even fewer would be afforded a good death. But it was early in the games’ last day, and the combatants were still fresh, still convinced of their own strength and skill.

The contests were a annual tradition and had been around for years, for centuries as far as Merit knew. The Soleri calendar held three hundred and sixty-five days—twelve months of thirty days each, which left five remaining days unaccounted for. During these five days, the people of the empire observed the high festival, the Devouring of the Sun. These five days existed outside of normal time—no work was done, no animal was slaughtered, no field was plowed. Five days out of time—a period of rest, five days to drink and play as the people of the empire waited for the sun to turn black.

Every year the feasting paused on the fifth day and exactly at noon the moon eclipsed the sun and the sky turned dark. The Devouring. Throughout the kingdoms, the people of the empire gathered together as Mithra-Sol dimmed his light in acknowledgment of the emperor. In the blackthorn forests of Feren they buried torches in the red earth. In the Wyrre, the beggars banged iron pots and smashed clay vessels to ward off the devourer. In Rachis, the mountain lords lit blazing pyres that turned the coal-black sky orange. But in Harkana, where hatred of the empire ran strongest, the people observed the festival in a more personal manner. The Harkans could not work or sow, but they could play and so they played at war. If they must commemorate their own defeat, if they must toast in honor of the emperor, the Harkans would do so with blood.

Merit shaded her changeable blue-green eyes as she surveyed the field. Below her, the sound of iron striking wood shot through the arena. A Feren warrior cried out in pain as he fell to the arena’s dusty floor. Merit looked away with a grimace. Though it was her duty to order men to commit acts of violence, she didn’t much like watching it. She could stomach brutality as long as she didn’t have to look at it.

To Merit’s right, the queen’s seat was empty, as it had been for nearly a de cade. Her father, the king, was absent. Her brother, Ren, the heir, was locked in the Priory of Tolemy, so it was left to Merit to represent the royal family and to sit on the king’s chair as the combatants clashed swords, a duty that by rights was her father’s, but Arko Hark-Wadi, king of Harkana, refused to display patronage to the empire. The king was hunting in the north as he did each year during the Devouring.

A thought occurred to Merit. Did the boys in Tolemy’s house observe the festival? Did they stand and watch the sun dim? Did Ren know that his people spent the day battling one another with spears and swords to remind the kingdom of its once-brave history? Her own father, the king, had never served in the Priory. His father had fought a war to keep his son safe at home. She wondered if that was why Arko always left Harwen for the Devouring. Is he too proud to salute the bravery of others?

“The Soleri emissary will take it as a sign of disrespect, Father,” she had told Arko, watching him ride out with his hunters. “Any slight will be noticed.”

But her father had dismissed her with a wave of his hand. “Fear not, Merit, I’ll raise a cup when the sky darkens and I’ll offer the emperor’s spies a drink if any are watching.” Then he had left, not even looking back at the place and the people he was abandoning. He did not even acknowledge the burden he had left her to bear. The queen’s duties came naturally to the king’s first daughter, but the king’s obligations were an. other matter. As much as she tried to fill his place, she was not his heir, and as much as she cajoled and flattered their allies, it was clear that no man save Arko could command their respect, and the king showed little interest in his duty. She longed for permanence, for recognition, for a power that was hers alone. Since her father would not grant her what she desired, she had decided she would take it for herself. She would find her own path to power and if that meant getting a little dirt on her hands, well, that wouldn’t bother her a bit.

Merit stood up once more, as her duty required, raising her hand to the crowd. “To arms,” Merit said as the second of the matches, the con. test of kings, began. This next bout pitted highborn warriors from competing kingdoms against one another in a melee. In practice, the servants and soldiers of wellborn families often fought in the contest, but the rules of the game did allow for the participation of the highborn and even the king’s family. Such participation was rare but not unheard-of in the con. tests, and so on a day such as this one, a day when the wellborn citizens of both kingdoms stepped into the ring, the games held an added tension, a thrill that was palpable. Noble blood meant the possibility of noble death.

Finally something worth watching, she thought.

On the field, a fierce battle raged between the Harkans and their Feren adversaries. Her eye tracked the Feren warrior in silver who had caught her attention earlier. The swiftest and most nimble of the Harkan warriors, a slim figure in a royal set of black leathers, with the horns of Harkana emblazoned upon them in silver, one Merit knew well from many previous celebrations, one the crowd knew as well, advanced on the Feren in the silver, but was driven backward by a pack of Ferens. There were five of them against just the one Harkan, and the Ferens were taller and their swords were longer and heavier. The Harkan had every disadvantage, but the warrior in black was undaunted. The Ferens, with their heavy armor and heavy weapons, moved slowly, giving the Harkan time to lift a short sword from the sand, where someone had dropped it. With two blades, the Harkan held back the five Ferens, parrying blows with one arm while attacking with the other.

The crowd roared its approval, and even Merit clapped.

Moving with confidence, the warrior in black executed a deft maneuver, throwing the short sword like a dagger and striking one of the Ferens in the leg, bringing him to the ground while the Harkan slashed at another, knocking the sword from the man’s hand and taking a finger with it.

The remaining Ferens pressed their advantage. Two attacked from the front while the third came at the Harkan from behind, moving with exceptional speed, thrusting his sword at an exposed patch of the Harkan’s armor. The blade drew blood, and the warrior in black retreated to the edge of the field.

Merit edged closer to the lip of the platform. She hated when the fighting dragged on like this. The air smelled like blood and sinew and her stomach churned.

On the field below, the Ferens pressed the lone Harkan. Injured but still defiant, the warrior in black blocked a fierce blow from above while from the side a gauntleted fist pummeled the Harkan’s cheek. A second blow sent the Harkan stumbling. The Ferens pushed in for the kill.

Damn it all, Merit thought, this will ruin the games. Merit wondered if she should call an end to the match. It was within her right to end the contests, to declare a winner without further bloodshed. She raised a finger and the crowd’s gaze swung from the field to the platform where Merit stood. The people waited. A word would end the melee, but no sound issued from her lips—as there was no longer a need for her to act.

What’s he doing?

The highborn Feren in the silver armor had advanced across the ring and was attacking his own countrymen, clobbering one soldier with the pommel of his sword, sending the man crashing to the sand while taking the second man by the collar and tossing him outside the ring, ending his part in the contests. The last of the three Feren warriors, unwilling to raise his blade against the noble warrior in silver, dropped his weapon. The crowed roared as he scurried from the ring.

Clever man, thought Merit. He wants her all to himself.

Two combatants remained, one from each kingdom, the tall and powerful Feren in silver, the small and stealthy Harkan in black. Her head swung from one to the other, watching closely. These next few moments would be the critical ones, the moves that would decide the match.

The Harkan advanced, feet shuffling in the dirt, stirring gray clouds, sword gleaming in the light.

The crowd went silent.

The Harkan lunged with frightful speed, then faltered midstrike.

The crowd gasped.

Merit bit her lip.

Searching for an explanation for the Harkan’s failure, Merit noticed blood seeping from the black armor. Taking advantage of his opponent’s injury, the tall Feren struck at the wounded Harkan, disarming his opponent, putting his blade to the Harkan’s neck, ready for the kill.

“Halt!” ordered Merit. She swallowed an uneasy breath. “Show yourself!” she ordered the Harkan.

On the field, the Harkan angrily tore off her helm, revealing the face of a girl of ten and six years with close-cropped hair and brown eyes.

Harkana’s last warrior in the field was Kepi Hark-Wadi, second daughter of Arko, king of Harkana. Merit’s younger sister. I told her to stay out of the games. Merit had urged Kepi to sit alongside her on the platform, but her sister had little interest in Merit’s advice—little interest in anyone’s counsel save for her own.

The tall Feren took off his helm. His dark, wet hair was plastered to his head, his strong jaw lined with dark stubble. He was Dagrun Finner, the young king of the Ferens.

Below Merit, the crowd surged with anger at Kepi’s defeat.

Merit held her breath, waiting for Kepi to yield so that the match would be over, but her younger sister gave no sign, no indication that she would relent. Right, thought Merit. She isn’t going to make this easy for me.

The two combatants stood, unmoving, the Feren blade held at her sister’s throat, the crowd whispering, as soldiers from both sides began gathering at the edge of the field, ready for war. All eyes turned to Merit. But she remained impassive, unwilling to release her sister from her fate. Instead she caressed the folds of her blue dress as she watched Kepi shudder beneath the blade, watched her squirm while the crowd held its breath. Let Kepi worry.

When the moment had stretched for a sufficient time, Dagrun, the king of the Ferens, tired of holding his sword, let his blade nip her sister’s throat, drawing a sliver of blood.

Forcing Merit’s hand. Save her sister or send her to her death.

She had little choice.

Merit slashed the air with her hand, surrendering the match to Dagrun.

You won’t taste death today, Kepi.

After all, Merit had plans for her little sister.

 


Chapter 3

“I should have gutted Dagrun while he held the blade to my throat,” said Kepi Hark-Wadi, the king’s second daughter, as she threw her black leather armor across the room so that it expelled a trail of blood onto the floor. It left a star-shaped stain on the dusty brown sandstone, a mark she knew her father would see, no matter how much she would scrub it later. “I’m fine!” she barked, waving off the consolatory murmurs of her waiting women, the worried clucking of the physician who wanted to see to the bruise on her cheek and the cuts on her neck and chest that were still dripping blood from her fight in the arena. “Leave!” she told the physician.

Kepi didn’t care about cuts and bruises. She seldom shied away from pain; in fact, if the words of her physician were to be believed, pain was the thing she sought most in life. Pain helped her forget. Whenever there was even the smallest chance of remembering her past, she would pick up a blade and pick a fight instead. Hitting things made the memories go away, and on occasion, taking a good hit did the trick as well.

She had taken more than a few hits in the arena that day, but her humiliation hurt more than the slash of any blade.

Merit should have let the king of the Ferens kill her; surely death was better than this. So close. She had come so close to defeating Dagrun. She could see it in her mind’s eye—if she had taken one more step to the right, if she had used her size and speed to react just a moment faster, she could have ducked his arm and come up behind him, caught him around the neck and pressed her blade against his throat, made him submit to her while around him rang the cheers of her countrymen. A Harkan victor in Harkana’s games. A victory against the people who had wronged her. She touched the cut on her throat and her finger came away wet with blood.

“My, my, look at all these cuts,” murmured the girl who was washing her.

“You’re black and blue,” said another. “You look like you been stompin’ grapes—like you’re covered in wine stains.”

“I’ve had worse,” Kepi said as she untied the last of her leathers. Around her, the girls fussed and fretted, cleaning the dirt and the blood from her neck and chest, bringing her fresh water and a clean gown, something suitable for the gathering in the King’s Hall.

“That’s what I’m going to wear?” Kepi looked at the flimsy linen dress and laughed without mirth. At ten and six years, slender as a teenage boy, with her wide shoulders and high forehead, Kepi was not as conventional a beauty as Merit. Her hair was a mossy brown and cut at the nape, short as a boy’s, and she had her father’s black eyes and thin nose. But Kepi cared little for her looks. In truth she had her own brand of charm, a beguilingly crooked smile, a brightness in her eyes, but as she was often standing next to her sister at public events, many found her plain.

“You’ll make a poor sight in the King’s Hall, in your fine gown and golden bangles, and that bruise blackening half your face,” said the girl who was helping her with her dress.

“You forgot about the cut on my arm,” Kepi said with a wan smile. The slash on her forearm was festering, turning purple, a sorry sight indeed for the people of Harkana, not to mention their guests from Feren.

“I rather like the way I look,” Kepi said as she glanced at the patch. work of red and blue that covered her skin. The girls all shook their heads as they adjusted her gown, tugging it up across her slight breasts and flat stomach, correcting the pleats. The fabric was thin and she wore nothing beneath but her contempt, ill at ease at having to stand in the King’s Hall during the Devouring with a man whose people she so despised. Whose idea had it been to invite them to Harwen? Especially Dagrun, that brute and no-name. How can Merit tolerate the man? She had heard the rumors about her sister and the new king of the Ferens and hoped they were not true. The mere thought of the Ferens—liars, slavers—made her stomach roil.

Kepi’s history with Feren was something she tried daily, without success, to forget—how as a child the emperor had promised her in marriage to a warlord of the blackthorn forests. How she had nearly died at the hands of her new husband and his kin. Imprisoned, starved. Abused. Her year in Feren was easily the worst of her young life.

Kepi tried to push the thought from her mind as her cuts burned and her bruises throbbed. On any other day the pain would have distracted her, but not today, not with the Ferens so close. On a day like this, she could not forget what had happened to her at their hands.

The betrothal itself was not unusual. Since the War of the Four and the penances that came from losing to the Soleri, every year legions of commoners from the lower kingdoms were sent to Sola to serve as slaves, while the ruling families sacrificed their children. Sons were sent to the Priory of Tolemy, while daughters were matched in marriage by the emperor himself. Like slaves, the children of the lords and kings of the lower kingdoms had no choice: they had to submit to the emperor’s will, for the good of the empire, for the sake of their country, for peace.

And submit they did. Three years ago, Kepi had traveled with her father and sister and a small coterie of lords and ladies and soldiers, crossing the Rift valley on a rickety wooden bridge and making their way into the strange, dark land where green plants and trees grew wild, monstrous blackthorns so tall their tops were hidden in the low clouds, keeping the land in a cool gray shade, in a perpetual twilight that made everything seem hushed and secret. Even the noisy Harkans had been silenced and spoke only in whispers when they entered the forest kingdom, where there was no horizon, where the trees themselves seemed to lean in to listen.

It had all seemed so exotic—the land, the lushness and greenness of it, so different from the deserts of Harkana. So empty. Met only by the calls of the black-winged kestrels wheeling high overhead, the Harkans traveled two days without seeing another soul, not a village, not a city. Kepi started to think the Ferens were a dream, not a people as much as a myth.

No. She didn’t want to recall her tortured little wedding, the night of drunkenness that followed, and the way her husband’s body had looked when she found him dead the next morning, lying on his face in a pool of his own spit. She tried not to think about it. She always tried not to think about it, but was seldom successful. She’d spent a year in a Feren prison, accused of the drunkard’s murder, before her father had arrived with a legion of Harkan soldiers and demanded her release. When the prison guards balked at the Harkans’ demands, Arko’s men had cut down the Ferens, hacking their way into the prison. It was Arko himself who broke through the great wooden door of her cell, shattering her chains and carrying her to his horse.

When she crossed the Rift valley, passing from the Feren kingdom into Harkana, she had spit upon the earth, vowing never to return. When she arrived in Harwen, Arko declared Kepi’s commitment to the Feren kingdom fulfilled. She had married Roghan Frith as the emperor had commanded and Roghan Frith was dead. Kepi was free.

The Ferens felt differently, of course. They believed that Kepi was a widow of the Gray Wood and one of them now. She was owed to them. When Dagrun took the throne, the new king of the Ferens had quickly petitioned her father with offers of marriage to his various warlords. The fact that Kepi had been accused of murdering her first husband was not a deterrent. The Ferens would claim her, Dagrun had threatened, by the emperor’s decree.

Arko swore to his daughter that he would never allow it. And in the meantime, Dagrun had proven to be nothing but a saber-rattler. So far he had not gone to war over her, even if the threat of another Feren marriage was ever in the air.

I should have beaten Dagrun today. She was no longer ten and three, but sixteen, and the most nimble soldier her Harkan trainer had ever seen. I wanted to bring him to his knees. She was disgusted with her failure to do so. Since the wedding, she had dreamed of nothing but her freedom. She wanted to make her own way in the world, to be free of the empire’s influence, free of Feren marriage proposals. She wanted to determine her own path in life.

A knock rattled the door. A messenger. From Merit, no doubt, who was wondering what was taking Kepi so long and had sent a boy to fetch her younger sister to the gathering in the King’s Hall.

“A moment,” her servant called. Kepi was not yet ready.

“A long moment,” Kepi muttered, still not certain if she wanted to go through with the gathering.

“What are we going to do about the bruises?” asked the girl who had dressed her. The others all shook their heads; they were clearly at a loss. “Isn’t there some way to hide them? Chalk powder? Ochre?” The girls fiddled and murmured until Kepi lost patience with their fussing. She pushed them all aside, glanced at her reflection in the polished silver, and laughed.

“I think I look splendid,” Kepi said. She would not conceal her wounds. If she must make an appearance, if she must face Dagrun, let her meet him not with the face of a king’s daughter, but that of warrior fresh off the field—bruised but defiant.

Excerpted from Soleri, copyright © 2017 by Michael Johnston.

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