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 Three 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.
Rampuri Tan sat on the floor inside his small cell, his back to the door, a broad sheet of blank parchment spread on the flagstones before him. He held a brush in his left hand, but however long he had been sitting, had not yet dipped it into the saucer of black ink at his side.
“Enter,” the man said, beckoning with his free hand without turning toward the door.
Kaden crossed the threshold, then paused. The first few moments with a new umial could set the tone for the entire relationship. Most of the monks wanted to make an impression on their pupils early, and Kaden wasn’t eager to earn himself some grueling penance because of a careless misstep or lapse in judgment. Tan, however, seemed content to contemplate his blank page in silence, and so Kaden schooled himself to patience, attending to his strange new master.
It wasn’t hard to see where the novices had come up with the idea that the older monk had fought in the arena. Though well into his fifth decade, Tan was built like a boulder, thick in the shoulders and neck, and powerfully muscled. Furrowed scars, pale against his darker skin, ran through the stubble of his scalp, as though some clawed beast had raked at his head again and again, slicing the flesh right down to the skull. Whatever inflicted the wounds, they must have been excruciating. Kaden’s mind jumped back to the carcass of the goat, and he shivered.
“You found the animal that Heng sent you for,” the older monk began abruptly. It was not a question, and for a moment Kaden hesitated.
“Yes,” he said finally.
“Have you returned it to its flock?” “No.”
“It had been killed. Savagely killed.”
Tan lowered the brush, rose fluidly to his feet, and turned to face his pupil for the first time. He was tall, almost as tall as Kaden, and suddenly it felt as though there was very little space in the small cell. His eyes, dark and hard as filed nails, fixed Kaden to the spot. Back in Annur, there were men from western Eridroa and the far south, animal handlers, who could bend bears and jaguars to their will, all with the power of their gaze. Kaden felt like one of those creatures now, and it was with an effort that he continued to meet the eyes of his new umial.
“Crag cat?” the older monk asked.
Kaden shook his head. “Something severed its neck—hacked straight through. Then consumed the brain.”
Tan considered him, then gestured to the brush, bowl, and parchment lying on the floor. “Paint it.”
Kaden took his seat with some relief. Whatever surprises were in store for him under Tan’s tutelage, at least the older monk shared some habits with Heng—if he heard about something unusual, he wanted an image. Well, that was easy enough. Kaden took two breaths, composed his thoughts, then summoned the saama’an. The sight filled his mind in all its detail—the sopping hair, the gobbets of hanging flesh, the empty bowl of the skull cast aside like broken crockery. He dipped the tip of the brush into the bowl and began to paint.
The work went quickly—his study with the monks had provided plenty of time to hone his craft—and when he was finished, he set down the brush. The painting on the parchment could have been the image of his mind reflected in a pool of still water.
Silence filled the room behind him, silence huge and heavy as stone. Kaden was tempted to turn around, but he had been instructed to sit and to paint, nothing else, and so, the painting finished, he sat.
“This is what you saw?” Tan asked at last.
“And you had the presence of mind to remain for the saama’an.”
Satisfaction swelled in Kaden. Maybe training under Tan wouldn’t be so bad after all.
“Anything else?” the monk asked.
The lash came down so hard and unexpectedly, Kaden bit into his tongue. Pain screamed across his back in a bright, bold line as his mouth filled with the coppery taste of blood. He started to reach back, to block the next blow, then forced the instinct down. Tan was his umial now, and it was the man’s prerogative to dole out penance and punishment as he saw fit. The reason for the sudden assault remained a mystery, but Kaden knew how to deal with a whipping.
Eight years among the Shin had taught him that pain was far too general a term for the multitude of sensations it purported to describe. He had learned the brutal ache of feet submerged too long in icy water and the furious stinging and itching of those same feet as they warmed. He had studied the deep reluctant soreness of muscles worked past exhaustion and the blossoms of agony that bloomed the next day as he kneaded the tender flesh under his thumbs. There was the quick, bright pain of a clean wound after the knife slipped and the low, drumming throb of the headache after fasting for a week. The Shin were great believers in pain. It was a reminder, they said, of how tightly we are bound to our own flesh. A reminder of failure.
“Finish the painting,” Tan said.
Kaden called the saama’an back to mind, then compared it with the parchment before him. He had transferred the details faithfully.
“It is finished,” he replied reluctantly.
The lash came down again, although this time he was prepared. His mind absorbed the shock as his body swayed slightly with the blow.
“Finish the painting,” Tan said again.
Kaden hesitated. Asking questions of one’s umial was usually a fast route to penance, but since he was being beaten already, a little more clarity couldn’t hurt.
“Is this a test?” he asked tentatively. The monks created all sorts of tests for their pupils, trials in which the novices and acolytes attempted to prove their understanding and competence.
The lash took him across the shoulders again. The first two blows had split open the robe, and Kaden could feel the switch tearing into his bare skin.
“This is what it is,” Tan replied. “Call it a test if you like, but the name is not the thing.”
Kaden suppressed a groan. Whatever eccentricities Tan might possess, he spoke in the same infuriating gnomic pronouncements as the rest of the Shin.
“I don’t remember anything else,” Kaden said. “That’s the entire saama’an.”
“It’s not enough,” Tan said, but this time he withheld the lash.
“It’s the entire thing,” Kaden protested. “The goat, the head, the pools of blood, even a few stray hairs that were stuck on a rock. I copied everything there.”
Tan did hit him for that. Twice.
“Any fool can see what’s there,” the monk responded dryly. “A child looking at the world can tell you what is in front of him. You need to see what is not there. You need to look at what is not in front of you.”
Kaden struggled to make some kind of sense out of this. “Whatever killed the goat isn’t there,” he began slowly.
“Of course not. You scared it away. Or it left on its own. Either way, you wouldn’t expect to find a wild animal hunkered over its prey if it heard or scented a man approaching.”
“So I’m looking for something that should be there, but isn’t.”
“Think in your mind. Use your tongue when you have something to say.” Tan followed the words with three more sharp blows. The gashes wept blood. Kaden could feel it running down his back, hot, and wet, and sticky. He had had worse beatings before, but always for a major mistake, a serious penance, never in the course of a simple dialogue. It was becoming more difficult to ignore the lacerating pain, and he struggled to keep his mind on the subject at hand. Tan wasn’t going to stop whipping him out of mercy; that much was clear.
You need to see what is not there.
It was typical Shin nonsense, but like much of that nonsense, would probably turn out to be true.
Kaden scanned the saama’an. Every part of the goat was accounted for, even the intestines, which lay piled in sloppy blue-white ropes beneath the creature’s abdomen. The brain was gone, but he had painted the broken skull clearly, showed where it was scooped out. What else would he expect to see? He’d been tracking the goat, followed it to the canyon, and…
“Tracks,” he said, realization coming with the word. “Where are the tracks of whatever killed it?”
“That,” Tan said, “is a very good question. Were they present?”
Kaden tried to remember. “I’m not sure. They’re not in the saama’an… but I was focused on the goat.”
“It seems that those golden eyes of yours don’t see any better than anyone else’s.”
Kaden blinked. He’d never had a umial mention his eyes before—that was too close to mentioning his father or his birthright. The Shin were profoundly egalitarian. Novices were novices; acolytes were acolytes; and full brothers were all equal before the Blank God. Kaden’s eyes, however, were unique. Tan had called them “golden,” but in fact, the irises blazed. As a child, Kaden had stared at his father’s eyes—all Annurian Emperors shared them—marveling at the way the color seemed to shift and burn. Sometimes they raged bright as a fire caught in high wind; others, they smoldered with a dark, red heat. His sister, Adare, had the eyes, too, though hers seemed to spark and snap like a blaze of green twigs. As the oldest of the Emperor’s children, Adare rarely focused her bright gaze on her younger brothers, and when she did, it was usually in a flash of irritation. According to the family, the burning eyes came from Intarra herself, the Lady of Light, who had taken human form centuries or millennia earlier—no one seemed quite sure—to seduce one of Kaden’s forebears. Those eyes marked him as the true heir to the Unhewn Throne, to Annur itself, an empire that sprawled across two continents.
The Shin, of course, had no more interest in empires than they did in Intarra. The Lady of Light was one of the old gods, older than Meshkent and Maat, older even than Ananshael, Lord of Bones. Upon her depended the arc of the sun in the sky, the heat of the day, the numinous glow of the moon. And yet, according to the monks, she was a child, an infant playing with fire in the vast mansion of emptiness, the unending and eternal void that was home to the Blank God. One day Kaden would return to Annur to claim his place on the Unhewn Throne, but while he lived at Ashk’lan, he was just another monk, expected to work hard and obey. The eyes certainly weren’t saving him from Tan’s brutal interrogation.
“Maybe the tracks were there,” Kaden concluded weakly. “I can’t be sure.”
For a while Tan said nothing, and Kaden wondered if the beating was about to resume.
“The monks have been too easy on you,” Tan concluded finally, voice level but hard. “I will not make that mistake.”
Only later, as Kaden lay awake in his bunk, breathing shallowly to try to ease the pain of his inflamed back, did he realize what his new umial had said: “the monks.” As though Rampuri Tan were not one of them.
The Emperor’s Blades © Brian Staveley, 2014