Nov 16 2013 10:00am
The Emperor’s Blades: Chapter Five
Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades, book one of Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne, is available from Tor Books in January 2014, and a new chapter of the book will appear on Tor.com by 9 AM EST every day from Tuesday, November 12 to Monday, November 18. Keep track of them all here, and dig in to Chapter Five below!
The emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life path on which their father set them, their destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.
Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor’s final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing—and risk everything—to see that justice is meted out.
The Emperor is dead.
The words lodged in Valyn’s brain like a bone and even now, hours after the Flea had landed in a flurry of wind and wings, they gouged at him mercilessly. It seemed impossible, like hearing that the ocean had dried up, or the earth had split in two. Sanlitun’s death was a tragedy for the empire, of course—he had provided decades of steady, measured rule—but during most of the flight back to the Qirins, all Valyn could think about were the tiny, seemingly inconsequential memories: his father holding the bridle as his son learned to ride his first horse, his father winking during a tedious state dinner when he thought no one else was looking, his father sparring with his sons left-handed to give them the passing illusion of success. There would be a solemn ceremony on the Qirins, as elsewhere, to mourn the passing of the Emperor, but Valyn had no one else with whom to mourn the passing of the man.
He wasn’t even sure how his father had died. “Some sort of treachery,” was all the Flea could, or would, tell him. It was the standard Kettral horseshit: the trainers insisted that their charges memorize everything about the empire from the price of wheat in Channary to the length of the Chief Priest’s cock, but when it came to ongoing operations—then you couldn’t buy a straight answer. Every now and again, one of the veterans would toss the cadets a scrap—a name, a location, a grisly detail—just enough to whet the appetite without satisfying it. “Mission security,” the Eyrie called it, although what security you needed on a ’Kent-kissing island with a captive population Valyn had no idea. He’d more or less made his peace with the policy, but this was his own father’s death, and his ignorance tore at him like a cruel thorn lodged beneath the skin. Did treachery mean poison? A knife in the back? An “accident” in the Dawn Palace? It seemed like being Sanlitun’s son should count for something, but on the Islands, Valyn was not the son of the Emperor; he was a cadet, like the rest of the cadets. He learned what they learned and no more. He had thought, after the Flea first delivered his news, that the Wing may have come to sweep him up, to deliver him back to Annur in preparation for the funeral. Before he could even ask the question, however, Adaman Fane’s voice cut through his confusion and horror.
“And you, O Light of the Empire,” the trainer had growled, poking Valyn roughly in the shoulder, “don’t think this means you’ll be getting some sort of holiday. People die all the time. Best to get that through your obdurate skull. If you’re going to have even a pathetic shot at surviving Hull’s Trial, I’d recommend giving your father an hour of thought tonight and then getting on with the training.”
And so, as the Flea, Fane, and a dozen other Kettral winged their way northwest, over the slapping chop toward Annur, Valyn found himself, along with a handful of his fellow cadets, strapped into the talons of a different bird, this one flying south, back toward the Islands. It was nearly impossible to talk with the wind in his face and the great wingbeats of the creature buffeting him from above, and Valyn was grateful for the semblance of solitude. The Flea had come and gone so quickly, delivered his words with so little preamble, that Valyn still didn’t feel as though the import of those words had really hit home.
The Emperor is dead.
He tested them again, as though he could feel their veracity in his throat, taste it on his tongue. The Aedolian Guard should have kept his father safe, but the Guard couldn’t be everywhere, couldn’t defend against every threat.
The ablest swordsman, Hendran wrote, the consummate tactician, the peerless general: All seem invulnerable until luck turns against them. Make no mistake—place a man in death’s way enough times, and his luck will turn.
Of course, Sanlitun hadn’t died of bad fucking luck. The Flea had said “treachery,” which meant that someone, probably a group of people, had conspired to betray and murder the Emperor. Which brought Valyn back to the Aedolian he had found in the ship’s hold only hours earlier. It didn’t take a spymaster or a military genius to see that the threat against Valyn’s life was tied to the murder of the Emperor himself. In fact, it looked very much as though a quiet coup was in process, a systematic elimination of the entire Malkeenian line. Sanlitun must have discovered it before his death, must have dispatched the ship full of Aedolians to rescue and protect his son, but the ship had come to grief, and Sanlitun’s knowledge had failed to save him. Someone wanted to eliminate the Malkeenian line, and terrifyingly, they were managing it. Someone would be coming for Valyn, and not just him, but for Kaden, too. Even Adare might be in danger— although as a woman, she couldn’t sit the Unhewn Throne. That simple fact, so galling to her as a child, may have saved her life. He hoped.
Holy Hull, Valyn thought grimly. As frightening as he found the idea of hidden assassins hunting him over the Qirin Islands, Kaden’s situation was far worse. Kaden, not Valyn, had the golden eyes. Kaden, not Valyn, was heir to the throne, was Emperor now. And Kaden, not Valyn, was alone in some distant monastery, untrained, unguarded, and unwarned.
Overhead, strapped in to the kettral’s back with an elaborate harness, Laith, the flier, banked the bird into a steep turn. Valyn looked over to see Gwenna watching him from her perch on the other talon, red hair swept around her head like flame. Of all the cadets, Gwenna was maybe the least plausible. She looked like a brewer’s daughter rather than an elite soldier—all freckles and pale skin given to sunburn, curly hair, and womanly curves that her standard-issue blacks did nothing to hide. She looked like a brewer’s daughter, but she had just about the worst temper on the Islands.
Her lips were turned down in something that was either a scowl or a frown of commiseration—it was hard to tell with her. Could she be part of it? Valyn wondered. It seemed ludicrous to suppose a high-level conspiracy bent at overthrowing the most powerful family in the world would enlist a cadet who hadn’t even passed the Trial. Still, there was an intensity in Gwenna’s green eyes that was hard to comprehend. Valyn had no idea how long she had been watching him, but when he looked over she pointed to the buckle linking his harness to the bird’s thick, scaly leg. He glanced down and discovered to his alarm that he hadn’t clinched the safety properly. If the bird stooped hard, he could have been ripped right off the talons, tossed a thousand paces to his death on the waves below.
You ’Kent-kissing idiot, he muttered to himself, yanking the leather tight, then nodding curtly to Gwenna. No one’s going to need to kill you if you take care of it for them. With an effort, he forced his apprehensions down. Whatever plots were afoot, he couldn’t foil them while dangling from his harness. There was nothing to do while strapped in to the bird but rest, and he tried to settle back into the rigging, to let his weary muscles slacken for a while, to find some of the calm he usually felt while soaring over the waves.
At sea level, it would be hot and humid already, the kind of day that plastered your shirt to your back and slicked your sword grip with sweat, but Laith was holding the bird a thousand paces up, where the sun warmed without scorching while the kettral’s enormous wingspan provided plenty of shade for Valyn, Gwenna, and the two other cadets strapped in and balancing on the huge talons. He tried closing his eyes, but it was no good. Visions of his father’s face filled his mind. Or was it Kaden’s? All he could see were those golden irises, flaming high, then quenched as blood rose in the sockets.
He shook his head to clear away the visions, opened his eyes, then checked over his belt knife, short blades, and buckle once more, running through the standard flight list over and over. Gwenna had continued watching him, he realized, and he stilled his hands, redirecting his attention to the land and sea inching by below.
He could see most of the Qirins by now, the slender chain stretching across the waves like a necklace of islands. Qarsh, the largest of the group, lay just a little to the south, and Valyn could see the sandy beaches, dense stands of mangroves, dusty limestone bluffs, and the various buildings of Eyrie command—barracks, mess hall, training arenas, storehouses—as clearly as if they were lines inked on a map. A few ships, a merchant ketch and a couple of sloops by the look of them, lolled at anchor in the harbor, and almost directly beneath him, a sleek-hulled cutter sliced through the surf, making for the port.
Qarsh was his home—not just the long, low barracks that he’d shared with twenty-five other cadets for the past eight years or the mess hall where he took his meals, exhausted and numb after a long day of training, but the whole island, from the rocky headlands to the winding waterways between the mangroves. It was familiar, even comforting, in a way the Dawn Palace had never been. The Islands were his. Until now.
After the Aedolian’s warning and the death of his father, the small archipelago looked different somehow, strange, treacherous, gravid with menace. One of the ships in the harbor might carry the men who had boarded the Aedolian vessel and slaughtered the crew. Someone in the barracks or mess hall, someone he had passed a thousand times in the training ring or labored beside in the storeroom, could be plotting to kill him. Those winding rocky trails offered too much seclusion, too many twists and turns where a man could disappear without anyone the wiser, and Kettral training afforded a thousand opportunities for “accidents”—botched drops, rigged munitions, sharp bits of steel just about everywhere you looked. In the space of a single morning, his home had become a trap.
The bird skimmed above the wide landing field just to the west of the harbor, and Valyn leapt from the talons. A small cluster of his peers waited at the edge of the field, some awkwardly fingering their belt knives, some openly studying him as he approached. Word traveled fast among the Kettral.
Gent Herren stepped forward first, shaking his massive head. “Hard luck,” he growled, extending a hand like a mallet. The huge cadet stood at least a foot taller than Valyn and had shoulders to match. He looked like a bear—curly brown hair on his arms and chest hiding the pale skin beneath—and generally seemed about as tame as one, although now his manner was subdued. “Your father ran a tight ship,” he went on, as though unsure quite what to say.
“A loss for the empire,” Talal added. Talal was a leach, and like all leaches, he kept mostly to himself. Still, he and Valyn had cooperated on a few training exercises over the years, and Valyn had developed a wary trust for him, despite his strange and tainted powers. In addition to his blacks, Talal wore an array of glittering bracelets, bands, and rings, and his ears were pierced with hoops and studs. On another man, such adornment would have been a mark of vanity and frivolity; on Talal, the glints and glimmers of metal were as lighthearted as the flash of an assassin’s blade. “Do they have any idea what happened?” he asked quietly.
“No,” Valyn replied. “I don’t know. Treachery. That was all they told me.”
Gent ground his knuckles into a meaty palm. “Fane and the Flea will find the ’Kent-kissing bastards. They’ll find ’em and sort ’em right out.”
Valyn nodded halfheartedly. It was a tempting vision—Wings of Kettral dragging the conspirators out into the light, beating the truth from them, and then executing them in the middle of the Annurian Godsway. It wouldn’t bring his father back, but justice carried its own cold satisfaction, and Valyn would breathe easier once the killers were hanged. Provided it proves that simple, he thought to himself grimly. A hard, realistic voice inside himself told him it would not.
“You’d better keep a closer watch on your ’Kent-kissing buckles,” Gwenna said, shouldering into the conversation. Her green eyes flashed with rage, and she planted a finger right in the middle of Valyn’s chest, driving her nail into his sternum. “You almost ended up in the drink back there.”
“I know,” Valyn replied, refusing to step back.
“He just found out his father was murdered,” Gent protested.
“Oh, the poor thing,” Gwenna snapped back. “Maybe we should keep him on bed rest and spoon-feed him warm milk for a week.”
“Gwenna,” Talal began, holding out a hand to placate her, “there’s no need—”
“There’s every fucking need,” she replied acidly. “He makes a mistake because his head’s in the clouds, he could get himself killed. He could get someone else killed.”
“Give it a rest, Gwenna,” Gent rumbled, his voice menacing as a distant avalanche.
She ignored both the other cadets and fixed her green eyes on Valyn. “I catch you doing something like that again, I’m reporting it. I’ll report it straight to Rallen. You understand?”
Valyn met her gaze squarely. “I appreciate the fact that you noticed the buckle. Could have saved my life. But I left my mother eight years ago when I set sail for the Islands, and I don’t need you stepping in to play the role.”
She pursed her lips as though she intended to argue the point. He took half a step backwards, shifting his weight and freeing his hand from his belt. The Kettral were a prickly bunch, and arguments, even small arguments, often came to blows. He had no idea why Gwenna was so mad, but he’d seen her take a swing at other cadets before, and he wasn’t about to be caught wrong-footed. Back on the mainland, there were plenty of fools who would have scoffed at the threat of a woman’s punch—but back on the mainland, the women weren’t trained to crush your trachea or gouge out an eye. After a tense moment, however, Gwenna shook her head, snarled something about “fucking incompetence,” and stalked off toward the barracks.
Silence reigned until Gent broke in, voice like a sack of rocks rolling downhill. “I think she’s sweet on you.”
Valyn coughed out a laugh. “I’ll tell you one thing. If she’s assigned to my Wing after the Trial, you both have permission to strangle me in my sleep.”
“Might be better to strangle her,” Ha Lin chimed in. She had landed on the next bird and must have joined them just as Gwenna made her dramatic exit. “That’s the usual idea, you know, Val. Enemy dead. You alive. That sort of thing? Maybe you haven’t been following along too closely the last few years.”
“Gwenna’s not the enemy,” Talal demurred.
“Oh no,” Lin said, “she’s a fucking peach.”
Valyn found himself grinning. “I’m fine as long as she doesn’t try to shove one of her flickwicks somewhere uncomfortable and light the fuse.”
“A man wants to die with his limbs and his dignity intact,” Gent agreed. “Stabbed. Poisoned. Drowned. Those are fine…” He trailed off, realizing what he was saying. “I’m sorry, Val. I’m a horse’s ass.…”
Valyn waved the apology aside. “Don’t worry. You don’t have to stop talking shop because my father’s dead.”
“What about your brother?” Talal asked. “Is he safe?”
Valyn looked over sharply at the leach. It was a sensible question, given< the circumstances, but it struck too close to Valyn’s own worries for comfort. Was the leach prying for information?
“Of course he’s safe,” Gent responded, “out there at the ass end of the known world. Who’s going to kill him? Another monk?”
Talal shook his head. “Someone betrayed Sanlitun. If they could kill one Emperor, they could kill another.”
“It’d take anyone the better part of a season to get to the Bone Mountains if they left yesterday on a fast horse,” Lin broke in, setting a hand on Valyn’s sholder. “Kaden—the Emperor, I should say—will be fine.”
“Unless someone got on that fast horse a few months ago,” Valyn interjected. It was maddening, not knowing what, exactly, had happened to his father. He was clenching his fist, he realized, and with an effort he loosened the fingers.
“Val,” Lin replied, “you’re making the whole thing sound like some grand plot.”
“Probably just a disgruntled idiot with a death wish,” Gent added.
A grand plot. That was precisely what the Aedolian had suggested.
“I’ve got to talk to Rallen,” Valyn said.
Lin arched an eyebrow. “That sack of shit?”
“He’s the Master of Cadets.”
“Don’t remind me,” she snorted.
“That means he decides who leaves the Islands. And when. And for what purpose.”
“You taking a vacation?”
“I could be in the Bone Mountains in under a week. Someone has to let Kaden know.”
Lin stared at him incredulously, then pursed her lips. “Good luck with that.”
For all the myths and fables surrounding the place, the central command building of the Kettral—the Eyrie—didn’t look like much. For one thing, despite the name, it was not perched on a dramatic cliffside—in fact, it squatted in the middle of a flat patch of ground a few hundred paces from the harbor. It wasn’t even a fortress. When you lived on an island hundreds of miles from the nearest coast guarded by the only airborne fighting force in the world, you didn’t need much in the way of fortresses. Instead, a few steps led up to a long, low, stone building facing the square. It might have served as a stable for some country gentleman, or a storehouse for a reasonably prosperous merchant. And yet, that nondescript building was where the men and women of the Eyrie made the decisions and gave the orders that toppled kings and subverted empires.
Valyn took the few steps without even noticing them, knocked the door open with a fist, and plowed down the stone hallway, his boots striking on the flags. Identical teak doors lined the hall; there were no names, no signs to direct a newcomer. If you didn’t know where to find the person you were looking for, you didn’t belong in the building. Valyn pulled up before the office of Jakob Rallen, the Master of Cadets. It was customary to knock, but Valyn was in no mood for custom.
Rallen was one of the few people on the Islands lacking the deadly look of the Kettral. In fact, the man didn’t look like much of a soldier at all. His sharp beady eyes and sweating bald pate seemed more suited to a menial clerk than a warrior, and aside from the short knife all Kettral wore at their belts, Valyn thought he probably hadn’t picked up a weapon in fifteen years. He wore blacks like the rest, of course, but he was fat to the point of obesity, and his belly slumped obscenely over his belt when he stood. Probably why he doesn’t stand, Valyn thought as he waited at attention, forcing himself to remain silent until the man looked up from the parchment in front of him.
Rallen raised a single fat finger. “You’re interrupting crucial business,” he droned, his eyes on the figures in front of him, “and so you will have to wait.”
The business didn’t look all that crucial—a few grease-smeared papers next to a half-cleaned plate of chicken—but Rallen liked to make people wait. The exercise of power seemed to bring him almost as much pleasure as stuffing his face with food.
Valyn took a deep breath. For the thousandth time, he tried to muster some sympathy. After all, it wasn’t as though Rallen had chosen to become a useless invalid. The man had actually passed Hull’s Trial somehow, had flown missions once—or one mission, at least. He’d shattered his leg on a nighttime drop and hadn’t been able to walk without the support of a cane ever since. It was a tough card to draw for someone who’d spent eight years training, and the man did not handle it well. He seemed to resent anyone more fortunate than him, and that put Valyn, with his royal name and luxurious childhood, just about at the top of the list.
Valyn couldn’t count the number of times he’d drawn latrine duty or third watch or stable mop for barely discernible violations of minor regulations. It would have been a whole lot easier to feel pity for Rallen if someone hadn’t made him Master of Cadets. The choice had baffled Valyn at first—why would anyone put an inept, undisciplined wash-up in charge, especially one with no combat experience? After a few years on the Islands, however, he thought he was starting to understand. Kettral training wasn’t all about fighting. It was about dealing with people, about keeping calm in difficult situations. No one ever said as much, of course, but Valyn had started to suspect that Rallen was all part of the training. He took another breath and waited.
“Ah,” the man said, shifting his gaze from the parchment at last. “Valyn. I’m sorry for your loss.”
He sounded about as sorry as a butcher hawking his meat, but Valyn nodded. “Thank you.”
“I hope, however,” the man continued, pursing his lips, “that you’re not here to beg for any sort of… leniency in your training as a result. Kettral remain Kettral, even when tragedy strikes.”
“No begging, sir,” Valyn replied, trying to keep his temper in check. “A request.”
“Oh, of course! How foolish of me. The great Valyn hui’Malkeenian would never beg. You probably have slaves to do your begging for you, eh?”
“No more than you do, sir.”
Rallen’s eyes narrowed. “What’s that now? I won’t tolerate insouciance in my office, regardless of your situation—”
“No insouciance, sir. Just a request.”
“Well?” the man asked, waving his hand as though he’d been waiting all along for Valyn to voice it. “Are you going to make it, then, or are you going to continue to waste my time and yours?”
Valyn hesitated, then plunged ahead. “I want to take a bird north. Off the Islands. To Ashk’lan. Kaden won’t know about our father’s death. He might be in danger.”
For a moment Rallen just stared, eyes wide in his fleshy face. Then he doubled over with laughter—rolling, mirthless, sardonic laughter.
“You want… ,” he managed in between wheezes, “to take a bird. That’s wonderful. Truly wonderful. Every other cadet on the Islands is training for Hull’s Trial, training to become true Kettral, and you want… to just skip it! You truly are the son of an Emperor!”
“It’s not for me, sir,” Valyn ground out. “I’m concerned about my brother.”
“Oh, of course you are. And of course you’re the man for the job, eh? The Emperor has the entire Aedolian Guard, men trained for one purpose only—to watch over him—but you think a raw cadet who hasn’t even passed the Trial is going to take care of everything, eh? Probably the men in charge back in Annur haven’t even considered this, is that it? They don’t even realize just how good you really are!”
Valyn hadn’t truly expected to be allowed the bird, but there was nothing to be lost in trying. At least it set him up for his real request. “Not me, then, but an established Wing. A Wing of veterans. The Flea, maybe—”
Rallen was already waving him to silence. “The Flea is north with Fane and half a dozen other Wings, trying to sort out what in ’Shael’s name went wrong. Besides, this isn’t Kettral work. As I just got done telling you, the Emperor, bright be the days of his life, has the Aedolian Guard to protect him. Here on the Islands, you’re learning—those of you who can be taught—how to kill people, not how to keep them alive. The Emperor will be fine. This isn’t your concern—or mine, for that matter.”
“But, sir,” Valyn began.
“No,” Rallen said.
“Maybe if I spoke with Daveen Shaleel—” “Shaleel won’t speak with you.”
“Perhaps if you intervened on my behalf—”
“I have other things to do than run errands for a pampered son of an Emperor.”
“I see,” Valyn replied, eyeing the chicken carcass. “Lunch is a priority.”
Rallen heaved his bulk half out of his chair and loomed over his desk, face florid with anger. “You will stand down, cadet!”
Valyn had overstepped. He knew it the moment the words left his mouth, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to swallow them.
“You think,” Rallen continued, puffing so hard, Valyn thought he might collapse, “that just because you’re the son of the Emperor you have the right to strut in here and demand things? Do you think that?”
“No, sir,” Valyn said, trying to change course.
“It is not your place, not your place to judge. Not your place to question. Obedience, cadet. That is what is required of you.”
Valyn gritted his teeth and nodded. If there were any choice, he would have taken his request directly to Shaleel. She was the commander of all field operations in northeastern Vash, which meant she coordinated everything the Kettral did in one of the stickiest parts of the world. She was also one of the hardest and smartest soldiers on the Islands. Unfortunately, whatever oddities the Kettral allowed, their command hierarchy was as inviolate as that of any other Annurian military order. If Valyn tried to bypass the Master of Cadets and barge directly into Shaleel’s chart room, he’d find himself back scrubbing latrines quicker than he could recite the Soldier’s Creed. And then, there were the words of the dead Aedolian echoing in his ears: Someone here… maybe someone important… is part of it.
“I’m sorry, sir,” he said, trying out his very best conciliatory voice. “My place is to serve and to obey. I stepped out of line, and for that, I would like to volunteer myself for third watch every second night this week.”
Rallen leaned back in his chair and squinted at him for a long time before nodding slowly. “You did. You did step out of line. You’ve got to get it through that dense head of yours that you’re not in charge here. You. Are. Not. In. Charge.” He smiled. “Third watch for a month, I think, should be adequate to convey the lesson.”
The Emperor’s Blades © Brian Staveley, 2014