Nov 17 2013 10:00am
The Emperor’s Blades: Chapter Six
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 Six 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.
We’re going to regret this in the morning,” Valyn said, peering into the depths of his tankard.
“We’ve been drunk before,” Lin replied, waving over Salia, the serving girl, with a free hand, “and with less cause. Your father just died. No one expects you to be swimming circuits of the Islands.”
Your father just died. Even a week later, the words still landed like a sharp fist to the gut. Lin wasn’t being cruel; she, like the rest of the Kettral, had long ago been trained to speak in the clear, crisp periods appropriate to combat. Talking round and round a point was like wearing lace into battle.
“I think Rallen would be happy to see me doing just that,” Valyn said, settling his elbow on the table and his forehead against the heel of his hand.
Lin frowned, tossed back the remainder of her ale, then frowned again. “Rallen’s a shit-sucking turd. It was bad form, giving you third watch at a time like this.”
“I volunteered. It was the only way to get out of his office without something worse.”
“Aside from avoiding his office in the first place.”
“I had to try,” Valyn snapped. “It’ll take an imperial delegation at least two months to get to Kaden: a few weeks at sea and then twice that riding north from the Bend. They should have sent a Kettral Wing.”
There was more venom in his voice than he’d intended. After a week of third watch, days training for the Trial, nights watching his own back, mourning his father silently, and the constant, nagging worry about Kaden, he’d taken the first free hour to catch the boat across the sound to Hook, made the short walk along the alley to Manker’s, and polished off five tankards of ale before Lin even walked in the door. It was just as all the Kettral said: You went to Hook to escape your problems and came back with a dozen more.
While the Eyrie kept a close eye on Hook, they didn’t control it in the same way as they did the other islands. In fact, sometimes it seemed as though no one controlled the place. There was no mayor or town guard, no merchant council, and no local aristocracy. Lin described it as a “hive of ’Shael-spawned pirates,” and Valyn supposed she wasn’t far wrong. Those who ended up on the island were all desperate—people hiding from mountains of debt, or death warrants, or some other kind of pain. He always got the impression they would have run farther, but there was no place farther to run.
Like most of the buildings on the island, Manker’s was built out over Buzzard’s Bay, the entire thing held up by tarred timbers sunk in the silt of the harbor bottom. On the outside, the tavern was painted a garish red to compete with the yellow and bilious green buildings flanking it; inside, however, it was low, and dark, and sagging, the kind of place where people held their purses close, kept their voices down, and sat with their backs to the wall. It suited Valyn’s mood just fine.
“Kaden will be all right,” Lin said, extending a tentative hand and resting it on Valyn’s.
“There’s no reason to believe that,” he growled. “According to the Flea, my father was murdered. Score upon score of Aedolians plus the ’Shaelspawned Palace Guard, and someone still managed to kill him. Kaden’s in some ’Kent-kissing monastery. What’s to keep someone from getting to him?”
“The fact that he is in that monastery,” Lin replied, her voice level. “He’s safer tucked away there than he would be anywhere inside the empire. It’s probably why he was sent there in the first place. No one even knows where it is.”
Valyn took a swig of his ale, then hesitated. For the past week he’d been wrestling with himself over whether to tell Lin about the murdered Aedolian, about the plot the man had revealed. He had no question about her loyalty—of all the cadets on the Islands, he knew Lin the best. She’d covered his back in scores of training missions, saving him a dozen broken bones at the least, and he’d hauled her out of some tight spots as well. If there was anyone he could trust, it was Ha Lin, but then, according to Hendran, secrecy admitted no half measures. The fewer people who knew a thing, the safer it was.
“What?” she asked, tilting her head to the side.
“You can lie to me if you want, but you’re gnawing on something.” “Everyone’s gnawing on something.”
“Well, why don’t you give me a bite?”
Valyn tapped absently at the side of his glass. Lin’s eyes were warm and urgent, frank enough in their concern that he had to look away. Secrecy was all well and good, but there was always the possibility that the plot against him would succeed. If he were the only one to know about it, and someone killed him, the knowledge would die, too. And, if he was being honest with himself, it would feel good to tell someone. He leaned forward over the table.
“You remember that ship… ,” he began.
The tale didn’t take long to relate, and at the end of it, Lin sat back, took a long pull on her ale, and let out a low whistle.
“Meshkent, Ananshael, and a bucket of pickled shit,” she swore quietly. “You believe him?”
Valyn shrugged. “Men don’t tend to spend their last breath lying.” “But who?” she asked.
He sucked a breath slowly between his teeth. “No way to know. I’ve been over all the names a dozen times. It could be anyone.”
“Rallen’s high up at command. He doesn’t like you,” she pointed out. “Rallen’s too ’Kent-kissing lazy to hoist his fat ass out of his chair, let alone to put together a plot to topple the empire.”
She took another swig of ale, then pursed her lips. “Let’s go back to your father’s murder. If you can figure out who killed him, it might give you a clue who to look out for here on the Islands.”
Valyn shook his head. “I’ve been thinking about that whenever one of the trainers gives me half a breath to myself. The Flea didn’t reveal much before he left, and no one else has told me shit since.”
“Who were your father’s enemies?”
Valyn spread his hands. “Take your pick. He was respected as Emperor, but even good emperors piss people off. Every time he passed judgment on some taxation issue, some disputed border, some stolen inheritance, he alienated at least half the people involved. None of the nobility appreciated the military draft—wanted to let the peasants do the fighting. None of the peasants liked forced labor, even when they got a stipend. The Black Shore Shipping Guild is always angry about something, despite the fact that they basically have an imperial monopoly. And then there’s the constant unrest at the borders: Antherans, Urghul, Hannans—all of them with these blood cults that are springing up, all of them pressing back against the ‘foreign oppressors,’ never mind that our oppression is what brings law courts and foreign trade, military protection and technological advancement. Even the Manjari seem to be getting restless recently, if you can judge from the Wings we’ve sent. There are plenty of people who’d want to see an Annurian Emperor dead. Shit, we might as well throw the Csestriim into the mix along with everyone else—maybe they weren’t all killed off three thousand years ago.”
“All right, I take your point. It’s a long list.”
“It’s endless. Until the Flea or Fane or someone gets back from Annur, it’s impossible to know where to start. I have to distrust everyone.”
Lin tilted her head to one side. “So why did you trust me?” she asked.
Valyn hesitated, suddenly conscious of the weight of her hand on top of his own, of the delicate, salty scent of her hair. She held his gaze with those wide, almond eyes of hers, her lips slightly parted.
Valyn took a deep breath. “I don’t know.” It was a lie, of course. He did know, but what was he going to say? He was a soldier. She was a soldier. If he suggested anything more, she’d be likely to laugh him off the Islands or put a blade in his gut. “I needed another pair of eyes,” he finished lamely.
An inscrutable glint flashed in her eyes—gone so quickly he couldn’t be sure he had even seen it. “So what are we going to do?” she asked.
In spite of himself, Valyn grinned. It felt good to have someone on his side. “I figured I’d have you guard my back every waking moment and take a dagger for me if the shit gets thick. How’s that sound?”
“I signed up for the Kettral, not the Aedolian Guard,” she shot back.
“Are you saying you wouldn’t gladly throw down your life to keep me from harm?”
He had meant it as a joke, but the remark sobered Ha Lin. “You’ve got to be careful,” she said.
“What I’ve got to be,” Valyn replied, his mood souring with hers, “is off this ’Shael-spawned island. I could be at Ashk’lan in less than a week, and instead I’m here, drinking ale at Manker’s.”
“Just a month more,” Lin replied. “We’ll pass the Trial and become full Kettral. A month after that, you’ll be flying your own missions, commanding your own Wing. You said it yourself—it’ll take anyone traveling by land at least that long to get to Kaden anyway. Two months, Val, that’s all.”
Valyn shook his head. “I’m already too late.”
Valyn exhaled heavily, pulling himself back to the table, searching in his cup for the words. “We’ve spent half our lives here, Lin, learning to fly, to fight, to kill people dozens of different ways, all to defend the empire.” He shrugged. “Then, when the empire needed defending, when the Emperor needed defending, I wasn’t there to do a ’Kent-kissing thing about it.”
She shook her head. “It’s not your fault, Valyn.”
“I know,” he replied, reaching for his ale.
She stopped his hand with her own, forcing him to look at her. “It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have protected him.”
“I know,” he said again, trying to believe the words. “I know, but maybe I can protect Kaden.”
“Two months,” she said once more, leaning in as though to will her patience upon him. “Just hold on.”
Valyn freed his hand, took a deep swig from his tankard, then nodded.
Before he could otherwise respond, however, the door clattered open and Sami Yurl stepped in. The youth scanned the low room with an expression of amused distaste. He had left his father’s gilded halls nearly ten years ago, but he still seemed to regard the workmanlike buildings of Hook and the other Islands as beneath his dignity, and he crossed under the lintel as though condescending to enter.
“Wench,” he said, snapping his fingers at Salia. “Wine. Whatever’s not watered down too horribly. And a clean glass this time, or I’ll introduce you to my displeasure.”
Salia cringed and bowed her way toward the kitchens, nodding obsequiously.
Lin growled deep in her throat, and Yurl, as though he heard the sound, turned to the corner table where she and Valyn sat. Salia came hurrying back with the full glass of wine, and he took it without looking at her, then raised it toward Valyn with a smirk.
“Congratulations! One step closer to the throne!”
Valyn moved his tankard to the side slowly, then reached down for the handle of his belt knife. Lin caught his wrist beneath the table, her grip surprisingly strong.
“Not now,” she hissed.
Blood hammered in Valyn’s ears, behind his eyes. It was partly the ale—he understood that dimly—but only Lin’s hand kept him from drawing the knife.
“Not now,” she said again. “You fight him, and you’ll end up in the brig for the Trial. Is that what you want?”
Yurl watched the whole scene from a few paces away, sipping at his wine with an amused smile. Like Valyn and Ha Lin, he had left his swords behind, relying on his belt knife and Kettral blacks to keep Hook’s more enterprising criminals at bay. Valyn flexed his hand beneath the table. Yurl’s knifework was good, better than good, but nothing like his swordplay. Knife against knife, Valyn would have a chance. Not to kill the bastard—he’d end up hanged for that—but to cut him down a peg or two… but then, as Lin had already pointed out, he’d miss his chance at the Trial. He put his hands back on top of the table deliberately.
Yurl smiled even wider. “Don’t tell me you don’t want the Unhewn Throne,” he mused, grinning.
“My brother has Intarra’s eyes,” Valyn grated. “My brother will sit the throne.”
“How filial.” Yurl turned his attention to Ha Lin. “And what about you? You figure if you fuck His Most Radiant Highness here enough times, you can ride his gilded cock to wealth and glory?”
It was a groundless gibe. Despite Valyn’s confusing feelings for Lin, they had never so much as kissed. If they shared a blanket sometimes on a miserable patrol exercise, all the Kettral did as much—it was just to stay alive, shivering against each other beneath the woolen fabric, trying to save a little warmth from the hard ground below and the chill air above. The truth was, Valyn went out of his way to avoid such situations, wary, lest she realize he thought of her as more than a fellow soldier. Yurl, however, had never bothered much with the truth.
“Don’t be hard on yourself,” Lin sneered, “just because you don’t measure up.”
The youth chuckled as though amused, but Valyn could see the jest had hit home. Of all the people on the Islands, only Yurl seemed to harbor any lust for Valyn’s position.
He sneered, then turned toward the bar.
“This wine is swill,” he said to Salia, dropping the glass, letting it shatter, the shards bright in the flickering lamplight. “You can pay for it out of your earnings.”
He cast a cool glance at Juren, the hulking thug Manker employed to keep something resembling order. Juren wasn’t too bright, but he wasn’t about to go toe to toe with a Kettral over a broken glass of wine. The man scowled at the floor, but made no move as Salia scurried to pick up the shattered vessel. Yurl chuckled in disgust, then turned toward the door and left.
Valyn slowly unclenched his hand, and as he did, Lin released his wrist. “Someday,” she said, her voice tight and hard. “But not today.”
Valyn nodded, hoisted his tankard, and took a long pull. “Not today,” he agreed.
A few paces away, Salia was weeping quietly as she swept the broken glass into a pan.
“Salia,” he said, beckoning her over.
The girl rose unsteadily and approached.
“How much was the wine?”
“Eight flames,” she snuffled. “I gave him Manker’s own stock.”
Eight flames. It was probably as much as the poor girl earned in a week. At least, if you didn’t count the money she made on her back upstairs.
“Here,” Valyn said, shelling out enough coin to cover his ale plus the spilled wine and broken glass. The Eyrie didn’t pay soldiers much, especially not cadets, but he could afford it more than she could. Besides, the desire to drink had gone out of him.
“I couldn’t,” she began, though she eyed the coin hungrily.
“Take it,” Valyn replied. “Someone has to clean up Yurl’s mess.”
“Thank you, sir,” Salia said, ducking her head as she scooped up the coppers. “Thank you so much. You’re always welcome here at Manker’s, sir, and if you ever need… anything else—” She batted her eyes, suddenly bold. “—you just let me know.”
“That was gallant,” Lin said with a tight smile after the girl had left. “She has a hard life.”
Valyn snorted. “Good point. Speaking of hard lives, I’m heading back to the barracks—we’re supposed to be running the perimeter before dawn tomorrow, and all this ale isn’t going to be doing my head any favors.”
Lin chuckled. Then, in her best imitation of Adaman Fane’s gravelly voice, she began, “Real Kettral embrace adverse circumstances. Real Kettral lust for suffering.”
Valyn nodded ruefully. “Six tankards on an empty stomach—all part of the training.”
As they stepped out of Manker’s, he stopped to watch the sun setting over the sound to the west. In that direction, more than a thousand leagues distant, past the wind-lashed waves of Iron Sea, past the karst peaks of the Broken Bay, past dozens of islands, some too small for names, Annur glittered, tiled roofs, grand palaces, shit-reeking hovels all clustered around Intarra’s Spear, the enormous glowing tower at the heart of the Dawn Palace. Sailors could make out the Spear when they were still two days distant—used it to navigate toward the heart of the empire. It was supposed to be impregnable, that tower, one of the final fortresses of the Csestriim, and yet, it had not protected the Emperor.
My father is dead, Valyn thought to himself, and for the first time, the words felt real. He turned to Lin, wanting to say something, to thank her for being there, for sharing the ale and the grief, for holding him back when his own anger drove him to strike out. She watched him with those bright, careful eyes, lips pursed as though she were about to speak. Before either of them could break the silence, however, a terrible crack shattered the still evening air.
Valyn turned, dropping his hand to his belt knife while Lin pivoted to put her back to his, settling into the low ready guard the Kettral used as their standard defensive position. His eyes flicked over the street, the alleys, the rooftops in quick succession, reading terrain and evaluating threat. The garish façades of the rickety structures stared back at him, red, and green, and blue, windows and open doors gaping like missing teeth. A dozen yards away, a dog perked up its ears at the strange sound, its bone momentarily forgotten. A few scraps of dingy curtain blew in the light breeze. An alley gate creaked idly on its hinges. Aside from that—nothing. The noise had probably come from the harbor—some drunken idiot who forgot to throw the catch on a winch and let his load go tumbling to the deck. Jumping at shadows, Valyn thought to himself. All the talk of plots and murders must have put them both on edge.
Then, just as he was about to straighten up, Manker’s gave a low, horrible groan. The crack of splintering timber sent the dog bolting away as the alehouse’s roof sagged in on itself, crumpling like wet paper, shedding slate tiles that fell in a deadly rain onto the street. The whole thing lurched toward the bay, then teetered horribly on its stilts. The people inside began to scream.
“The door!” Lin yelled, but Valyn was already moving. The two of them had spent enough time studying demolitions to know what happened to anyone trapped inside a building when it collapsed. People would be crushed or worse, drowned when the structure finally sloughed into the bay, dragging those pinned inside beneath the waves.
The whole building had peeled away from the alley, leaving a gap of several feet between the crumbling dirt of the lane and the listing doorway. Valyn glanced down—twenty-five feet or so to the water—a trivial distance, except for the jagged ends of the shattered stilts thrusting up like pikes. Anyone who tumbled into the space risked getting impaled on those splintered ends or ground into the murky water when the building finally collapsed. A hand appeared on the doorframe, groping desperately from the darkness within. Valyn swore once and vaulted the gap.
He caught the low lintel of the door with one hand, steadied himself, then reached through the door with his other to catch the wrist. He hauled, and Juren emerged, coughing and swearing. Blood poured from a nasty gash across his bald scalp and his ankle twisted sickeningly as he put weight on it, but other than that, the man appeared to be unharmed.
“Stay there,” Valyn said. “I’ll hand the others out to you. You can steady them before they jump over to Lin.” He jerked his chin to indicate his companion, who waited warily on the bank a few paces away.
The man flicked his eyes toward the interior of the tavern. Something had arrested the slow, inevitable collapse, but over the screams of the injured, Valyn could still hear the cracking of posts and beams warped past their tolerance.
“Fuck that,” Juren spat, his lips curled into a desperate rictus. He gathered his weight on his good leg, then leapt for the far bank.
“You shit-licking coward… ,” Lin began, yanking the man painfully to his feet by the ear as soon as he hit the bank.
“Leave it, Lin,” Valyn bellowed. “I need you over here.”
Ha Lin snarled, backhanded Juren across the face, measured the gap at a glance, then leapt, alighting on the opposite side of the doorframe from Valyn.
“You or me?” she asked, peering in through the door.
“I’m stronger,” Valyn said. “I’ll drag them to you. You get them across.” Lin eyed the gap. “Right.” She caught Valyn’s gaze, hesitated, then
waved him ahead. “Work fast.”
He nodded, then stepped inside.
It was even worse than he had anticipated. Manker’s had been a gloomy
den before the collapse, and the buckling ceiling and slumping walls had almost entirely blocked the few windows. Wreckage lay everywhere— ceiling timbers, busted tables, chunks of lath and plaster cracked from the crumbling walls. Half a dozen small fires—kindled, no doubt, when the lanterns smashed against the dry timber—licked at the jumble of broken beams, illuminating a thousand scattered shards of glass. Valyn paused, trying to get his bearings, trying to get his ’Kent-kissed footing on the floor, which sloped as precipitously as the deck of a clipper under full sail. People were shouting, moaning, crying for help, but at first he couldn’t even see them in the fitful gloom.
“’Shael take it,” he swore, shoving a board out of his way with one hand, trying to shield his eyes from the dust and debris.
He almost tripped over the first body—a thin, sallow man, his chest staved in by one of the collapsing timbers. Valyn dropped to a knee and put his fingers to the man’s neck, checking for a pulse, though he knew what he would find. As he rose, he heard a woman’s voice sobbing nearby. Salia—the serving girl.
She was trapped beneath a fallen rafter, but seemed alert and uninjured, if terrified. He took a step toward her, and the entire structure shrieked, pitching another few feet toward the bay.
“Val,” Lin shouted from the door. “Time to get out. The whole thing’s going down!”
He ignored the warning and crossed the few remaining steps to the trapped girl.
“Are you hurt?” he asked, dropping to one knee and running his hands along the beam, trying to discover what held her down.
Salia looked up at him, her dark eyes terrified, reflecting the fires that raged all around them now, singeing his face and her dress.
“My leg,” she gasped. “Don’t leave me.”
“Valyn,” Lin bellowed. “Extract now. You’ve got no time.”
“I’m coming,” he shouted back, looping a hand beneath the girl’s armpit and pulling. She screamed at the pain, the piercing howl of a trapped animal, bit down on her lip, and fainted.
“Son of a whore,” Valyn swore. She was held up somehow, but in the dusty murk, he couldn’t see where. Somewhere to his left, a beam crashed down from the ceiling and the whole tavern listed a few more degrees. He ran his hands around Salia again, searching for the obstruction. “Slowly,” he told himself. “Slowly.” If there was one thing he’d learned as a cadet, it was to act deliberately, even when the stakes were high. “Especially when the stakes are high, you fool,” he muttered.
As his fingers brushed past her waist, he found the problem—her dress had snagged on a wide splinter of wood. He yanked at it, but it held firm.
“Valyn, you stupid son of a bitch!” Lin shouted. There was fear in her voice now, fear and anger. “Get the fuck out!”
“I’m moving!” he called back, slipping his belt knife from the sheath and hacking away the snagged portion of the dress.
The girl came free all in a lurch. He dropped the knife, grabbed her by the dress and the hair, and dragged her across the floor toward the dim outline of the door, where Ha Lin was gesturing furiously.
“Go,” he shouted. “Get across! I’ll throw her to you!”
Lin snarled, froze in an anguish of indecision, then nodded and disappeared.
When Valyn pulled the unconscious girl through the doorway, he found, to his horror, that the gap had grown to almost a dozen feet. He could jump it, but Salia was still unconscious, draped limply over his shoulder.
Lin read the situation instantly, shook her head, then stepped right to the edge of the yawning crevasse.
“Throw her,” she said, gesturing.
Valyn stared at the gap, aghast. Salia couldn’t have been three quarters of his weight, but there was no way he could toss her the full distance. He glanced down. The jagged pilings bristled like spikes.
“I can’t,” he shouted back.
“You have to! Now, fucking throw her! I’ll catch her wrists.”
It was impossible. Lin knew it as well as he did. Which is why she wants me to do it, Valyn realized in a rush. Salia was dead weight. He could make the jump alone, but just barely. As long as he held on to the unconscious girl, he was trapped on the wrong side of the gap, pinned to a burning, teetering shell that would drag him to his death. He saw it all clear as day, but what could he do? Drop the unconscious girl and leave her to die? It was the right choice, the mission-responsible choice, but this wasn’t a ’Kentkissing mission. He couldn’t just…
“I’ll jump with her,” he shouted, preparing to sling Salia across his back. “I think I can make it.”
Lin’s eyes widened with horror. Then they hardened.
Before Valyn understood what was happening, she had her belt knife out, was cocking her arm, then throwing. Valyn watched, stunned, as the bright blade flashed end over end in the sun, then buried itself in Salia’s neck with a sudden gush of hot, bright blood. The girl’s lips parted in something that might have been a cry or a moan, but more blood choked it off.
“She’s dead,” Lin shouted. “You can’t save her now, Valyn! She’s fucking dead. Now, jump!”
Valyn stared at Salia, at the hilt of the knife pressed up against her neck. She’s dead. Beneath him, the building shuddered and groaned. He let out a roar of rage, dropped the corpse, and leapt. His feet hit the crumbling verge, and Lin caught him by the wrists, dragging him to safety.
He shrugged her off and spun back toward the tavern. Salia was gone, tumbled down into the gap. Flames licked up through the open door. Inside, people were still screaming, trapped as fire consumed the tarry timbers. A hand appeared on the sill, bloody and burned. It flailed, trying to find purchase, then fell away. Finally, the entire building trembled, sloughed away from the shore, and then, as though exhausted, crushed beneath its own weight, collapsed inward and sank into the bay.
The Emperor’s Blades © Brian Staveley, 2014