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 Four 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.
Even with the salt-sharp breeze gusting in off the sea, the bodies stank. Adaman Fane’s Wing had found the ship on a routine patrol two days earlier, sails rent and luffing, dried blood on the rails, the crew cut to pieces and left to rot on the decks. By the time the cadets arrived, the searing springtime sun had started its work, bloating bellies and pulling skin tight over knuckles and skulls. Flies crawled in and out of dead sailors’ ears, foraged between slack lips, and paused to rub their mandibles over desiccated eyeballs.
“Any theories?” Ha Lin asked, nudging the nearest body with her toe. Valyn shrugged. “I think we can rule out a cavalry charge.”
“Very helpful,” she shot back, lips pursed, almond eyes skeptically narrowed.
“Whoever did this, they were good. Take a look here.”
He squatted to peel back the crusted cloth from a nasty stab puncture just below the fourth rib. Lin knelt beside him, licked her little finger, then slid it into the wound up to the second knuckle.
A stranger meeting Ha Lin on the street might mistake her for a carefree merchant’s daughter on the cusp of womanhood: buoyant and blithe, brown skin tanned from long hours in the sun, glossy black hair pulled back from her forehead and gathered in a leather thong. She had a soldier’s eyes, though. For the past eight years, she’d been through the same training as Valyn, the same training as all the cadets on the deck of the doomed vessel, and the Kettral had long ago hardened her to the sight of death.
Still, Valyn couldn’t help but see her for the attractive young woman she was. As a rule, the soldiers avoided romantic entanglements on the Islands. Whores of both sexes were cheap over on Hook, and no one wanted a lover’s quarrel between men and women trained to kill in dozens of ways. Nonetheless, Valyn sometimes found his eyes straying from the exercise at hand to Ha Lin, to the quirk of her lip, the shape of her figure beneath her combat blacks. He tried to hide his glances—they were embarrassing and unprofessional—but he thought, from the wry grin that sometimes flickered across her face, that she had caught him looking on more than one occasion.
She didn’t seem to mind. Sometimes she even looked back with that bold, disarming stare of hers. It was easy to wonder what might have evolved between them if they’d grown up somewhere different, somewhere that training didn’t subsume an entire life. Of course, “somewhere different” for Valyn hui’Malkeenian meant the Dawn Palace, which had its own rules and taboos; as a member of the imperial family, he couldn’t have loved her any more than he could as a soldier.
Forget it, he told himself angrily. He was there to focus on the exercise, not to spend the morning daydreaming about other lives.
“Professional,” Lin said appreciatively, evidently unaware that his mind had drifted. She pulled her finger out and wiped the crusted gore on her blacks. “Deep enough to burst the kidney, but not so deep as to get the blade stuck.”
Valyn nodded. “There are plenty more like that, more than you’d expect from amateurs.”
He considered the purpling contusion a moment longer, then straightened up and stared out over the slapping chop of the Iron Sea. After all the blood, it felt good to look at the unblemished blue for a minute, the wide expanse of the meridian sky.
“Enough lounging!” Adaman Fane bellowed, cuffing Valyn across the back of the head as he strode the length of the deck, stepping over the sprawled bodies as though they were downed spars or coils of rope. “Get your asses aft!” The massive bald trainer had been with the Kettral better than twenty years and still swam across the sound to Hook and back every morning before dawn. He had little patience for cadets standing around during one of his exercises.
Valyn joined the rest. He knew them all, of course; the Kettral were as small a fighting force as they were elite—the enormous birds that they used to drop in behind enemy lines couldn’t carry more than five or six soldiers at a time. The Empire relied on the Kettral when a mission had to be executed quickly and quietly—for everything else, the Annurian legions could usually get the job done or the navy, or the marines.
Valyn’s training group numbered twenty-six, seven of whom had flown out to the abandoned ship with Fane for the morning’s exercise. They were a strange crew: Annick Frencha, slim as a boy, snow-pale, and silent as stone; Balendin with his cruel grin and the falcon perched on his shoulder; Talal, tall, serious, bright eyes set in a face dark as coal; Gwenna Sharpe, impossibly reckless and incurably hot-tempered; Sami Yurl, the arrogant blond son of one of the empire’s most powerful atreps, bronze-skinned as a god and viscious as a viper with his blades. They didn’t have much in common aside from the fact that someone in command believed that one day they could be very, very good at killing people. Provided nothing killed them first.
All the training, all the lessons, the eight years of language study, demolitions work, navigational practice, weapons sparring, the sleepless nights on watch, the never-ending physical abuse, abuse intended to harden both the body and the mind, all of it aimed at one goal: Hull’s Trial. Valyn remembered his first day on the Islands as though it had been branded on his mind. The new recruits had stepped off the ship straight into a barrage of curses and insults, into the fierce, angry faces of the veterans who called this distant archipelago their home, who seemed to resent any incursion, even by those eager to follow in their footsteps. Before he’d taken two steps, someone cuffed him across the cheek, then drove his face into the wet, salty sand until he could barely breathe.
“Get this in your heads,” someone—one of the commanders?— hollered. “Just because some incompetent bureaucrat has seen fit to ship you out here to our precious Qirin Islands, it does not mean you will ever become Kettral. Some of you will be begging for mercy before the week is out. Others we will break in the course of training. Many of you will die, falling from birds, drowned in the spring storms, sobbing pathetically to yourselves as you submit to fleshrot in some miserable Hannan backwater. And that’s the easy part! That’s the fucking fun part. Those of you lucky or stubborn enough to live through the training will still need to face Hull’s Trial.”
Hull’s Trial. Despite eight years of whispered speculation, neither Valyn nor the other cadets knew what it was any more than they had when they first arrived on Qarsh. It always seemed so distant, invisible as a ship beyond the cusp of the horizon. No one forgot it, but it was possible to ignore it for a while; after all, no one reached Hull’s Trial if he didn’t survive the years of training leading up to it. And yet, after all those years, it had come at last, like a debt long due. In a little over a month, Valyn and the others would earn the rank of full Kettral or they would die.
“Maybe we can start this morning’s parade of incompetence,” Fane began, tugging Valyn’s attention back to the present, “with Ha Lin’s assessment.” He gestured with a huge hand for her to begin. It was a standard exercise. The Kettral were always dragging cadets to fresh battlefields, the examination of which would both harden them to the sight of death and hone their tactical understanding.
“It was a night attack,” Lin replied, voice crisp and confident. “Otherwise, the sailors on deck would have seen their assailants. The raiding party came from starboard—you can see the gouges left by the grapples on the rails. When the—”
“Sweet ’Shael on a stick,” Fane interrupted, raising a hand to silence her. “A first-year could tell me all this. Will someone please explain something that’s not obscenely obvious?” He cast about, eyes finally fixing on Valyn. “How about His Most Radiant Highness?”
Valyn hated the title. It wasn’t even accurate, for one thing—despite the fact that his father was Emperor, he was never going to sit the Unhewn Throne—and for another, his high birth was irrelevant. There were no ranks on the Islands, no special perquisites or prerogatives. If anything, Valyn probably worked a little harder than most. Still, he’d learned long ago that complaining just landed you deeper in the shit, and he did not, at the moment, need to spend more time in the shit, so he took a deep breath and began.
“The crew barely even knew they were in trouble—”
Before he could finish the sentence, Fane cut him off with a snort and a curt chop of his hand.
“I give you ten minutes to look over this ’Kent-kissing goat fuck, and your only conclusion is that it was a surprise attack? What have you been doing? Pilfering rings and going through pockets?”
“I was just starting—”
“And now you’re finished. How about you, Yurl?” Fane asked, pointing to the tall blond youth. “Maybe you can find some way to contribute to His Most Radiant Highness’s exhaustive analysis.”
“There’s just so much to say,” Sami Yurl began, shooting Valyn a satisfied smirk.
“That spit-licking son of a whore,” Lin hissed, low enough that only Valyn could hear.
Though all the cadets endured the same privations and aimed at the same goal, there were rifts in the group. Most of the young soldiers enlisted out of a hybrid desire to defend the empire, see the world, and fly those enormous birds to which only the Kettral had access. For a peasant’s son from the plains of Sia, the Kettral offered opportunities too fantastic to be believed. Others, however, came to the Islands for other reasons: the chance to fight, to inflict pain, to take life—these drew some as rotting flesh drew vultures. Despite Sami Yurl’s smooth good looks, he was a brutal and nasty fighter. Unlike most of the other cadets, he seemed never to have put his past behind him, striding around the Islands as though expecting everyone to bow and scrape. It was tempting to dismiss him as the pampered, puffed-up son of a lord, an aristocratic fool who had lucked into the cadets through coin or family connections. The truth was more galling: Yurl was an effective, dangerous fighter, better with his blades than some full-rank Kettral. He’d beaten Valyn bloody dozens of times over the years, and if there was one thing he enjoyed more than winning, it was humiliating those he had defeated.
“The attack,” Yurl continued, “happened three days ago, judging by the air temperature, the number of flies, and the rot on the bodies. As Lin said”—he shot her a sly glance—“it was a night assault; otherwise, more of the crew would have been armed. When the pirates hit—”
“Pirates?” the trainer asked sharply.
Yurl shrugged and turned to the nearest corpse, casually kicking the head aside to reveal a gash running from clavicle to chest. “Wounds are consistent with the weaponry that kind of trash tends to favor. The hold is ransacked. They hit the boat and took the goods. Bang the whore and get out the door—pretty standard.”
Balendin chuckled at the crack. Lin bristled, and Valyn put a calming hand on her arm.
“Lucky for them,” Yurl added, “there weren’t any professionals on board.” His tone suggested that if he had been manning the deck, the attackers would have encountered a very different reception.
Valyn wasn’t so sure.
“Pirates didn’t do this.”
Fane cocked a bushy eyebrow. “The Light of the Empire speaks again! You wouldn’t want to rest on your laurels after so astutely identifying the ‘surprise attack.’ Please, enlighten us.”
Valyn ignored the goading. Kettral trainers could crawl under one’s skin quicker than a sandfly. It was one of the reasons they made good trainers. A cadet who couldn’t keep his cool wasn’t likely to make much of a soldier when the arrows started flying, and Fane was nothing if not adept at making people lose their cool.
“This crew wasn’t the usual mix of sailors with a few mercenary marines to guard the cargo,” Valyn began. “These men were professionals.”
Yurl smirked. “Professionals. Right. Which explains why they’re scattered around the deck like chum.”
“You’ve had a chance to run your mouth, Yurl,” Fane said. “Now, shut it, and see if the golden boy over here can manage to do something other than embarrass himself.”
Valyn suppressed a smile and nodded to the trainer before continuing. “The crew looks pretty standard. A dozen men—the kind you’d find running a sloop like this anywhere from Anthera to the Waist. But only two of the bunks have been used. That means ten men on the deck at all times. They were ready for an attack.” He waited for that to sink in.
“And their weapons. They don’t look like much.” He lifted a standard deckblade from the hand of the nearest corpse and held it up to the light. “But this is Liran steel. What kind of merchant rig runs ten on the deck, every man carrying Liran steel?”
“I’m sure,” Fane drawled, “that you’re planning to make a point sometime before the sun sets.” The man sounded bored, but Valyn could see the glint in his eye. He was onto something.
“All I’m saying is that if this lot were professionals, then the ones who boarded the ship and cut them down weren’t your garden-variety pirates.” “Well, well,” the trainer replied, looking around the cluster of cadets to see that everyone had followed the argument. “Even a blind horse finds the paddock once in a while.”
By Eyrie standards, the backhand remark counted as high praise. Valyn nodded, hiding his satisfaction. Sami Yurl’s lips tightened into a scowl. “Ten minutes on deck,” Fane continued, glaring, “and only the imperial mascot, here, has been able to tell me a single worthwhile thing about this ’Kent-kissing wreck. I didn’t rope two birds into flying you out here just so you could spend the morning sticking your thumbs up one another’s asses.
Go over it again. Use your eyes. Find me something worth knowing.” Eight years earlier, the admonition would have shamed Valyn to his core. Such tongue-lashings, however, were standard fare on the Islands. He nodded crisply to Fane, then turned to Lin.
“Split up?” he asked. “You stay topside, I’ll check belowdecks again?”
“Whatever you say, O Divine Light of the Empire,” she responded with a smirk.
“Let me remind you,” Valyn said, eyes narrowing, “that you’re not as big as Fane.”
She put a cupped hand to her ear. “What was that? It sounded like… was it a threat?”
“And you’re just a girl.”
It was a meaningless crack on the Qirins, where more than a third of the soldiers were women. Other imperial forces would have scoffed at the idea of a mixed-gender fighting unit, but the Kettral handled unusual situations, situations in which stealth, impersonation, deception, and surprise were as important as brute strength and speed. Still, if Lin was going to needle him about his parentage, Valyn intended to give as good as he got.
“I wouldn’t want to have to turn you over my knee and paddle you,” he added, wagging a finger at her.
“You know that Shaleel taught us how to crush testicles, right?” Lin replied. “It’s pretty easy, actually, sort of like cracking a walnut.” She demonstrated with one hand, a quick, twisting gesture that made Valyn wince.
“Why don’t you stay up here,” he said, taking a good step backwards, “and I’ll make sure we didn’t miss anything in the hold.”
Lin squinted appraisingly. “It might be more like a chestnut, now that I think of it.…”
Valyn tossed back the hatch and dropped below before she could finish the sentence.
The ship’s hold was low and dim. A few bars of sunlight lanced through the unchinked cracks in the decking above, but most of the space lay in deep, thick shadow. In a fight like this, there usually wasn’t much to see belowdecks, and only a few of the other cadets had already been down there. Still, it paid to look places other people didn’t.
Valyn waited for his eyes to adjust, then moved ahead, picking his way cautiously around stray barrels and bales as the vessel rocked gently beneath him, waves lapping at the hull. Whoever hit the ship had made off with most of the cargo, if there had been any cargo to begin with. According to the ink seals, the barrels that remained carried wine from Sia, although most of that trade tended to follow the shorter, overland route to the capital. A few crates were still lashed against the bulkhead, and Valyn pried one open with his belt knife: bales of cotton, also from Sia. It was good cargo, but not something professionals would usually go after. He was just starting to crack open the next crate when what sounded like a quiet moan caught his ear.
Without thinking, he drew one of the two standard short blades strapped across his back.
The sound was coming from the bow of the ship, all the way up by the foremost scuppers. Fane’s Wing should have checked the vessel over already, should have made sure that everyone was either dead or tied up before Valyn and the rest of the cadets came anywhere close. Fane, however, was one of the Eyrie’s more impulsive trainers, more interested in swinging a blade than skulking around belowdecks, checking pulses. He would have given the hold a glance, to be sure—but at a glance, a gravely wounded man could easily pass for dead.
Briefly Valyn considered calling someone else. If there were a sailor still alive, Fane would want to know immediately. On the other hand, he wasn’t certain just what he’d heard, and he didn’t relish the idea of hollering for the whole group only to find some untended livestock milling around in the bow. After a quick glance over his shoulder, Valyn glided silently ahead, belt knife held down by his waist, short blade in a tight guard before him—standard position for close-quarters fighting.
The man was tucked all the way forward against the curve of the keel itself, slumped in a puddle of his own blood. For a moment Valyn thought he was dead, that the sound had been the groaning of hawser against capstan, or the protestation of wood warping beneath the sun. Then the sailor opened his eyes.
They shone in the meager light, baffled and tormented by pain.
Valyn took half a step forward, then stopped. Assume nothing. That was the entire first chapter of Hendran’s Tactics, a tome that virtually every Kettral had committed to memory. The man looked near death, but Valyn held back.
“Can you hear me?” he asked quietly. “How badly are you wounded?”
The sailor’s eyes rolled in his head as though searching for the source of the sound before coming to rest, finally, on Valyn.
“You… ,” he groaned, the word gravelly and weak.
Valyn stared. He had never seen the man before, certainly not in his years on the Islands, but recognition filled that feverish gaze and pinned him to the spot.
“You’re delirious,” he said carefully, edging closer. Unless the man was a professional masker, he wasn’t faking. “Where are you wounded?”
“You have the eyes,” the sailor responded weakly.
Valyn froze. Usually when people referred to “the eyes,” they were talking about his father, Sanlitun, or his brother, Kaden, both of whom had been blessed with the famous burning gaze, flaming irises that marked them as the heirs to Intarra herself, as the rightful Emperors of Annur. Even his older sister, Adare, had that gaze—although as a woman, she would never sit the Unhewn Throne. Growing up, Valyn had been fiercely jealous of those eyes, had, in fact, almost blinded himself once with a burning twig while trying to light his own eyes ablaze. The truth was, though, that Valyn’s stare was no less unsettling: black pupils set in irises brown as char. Kaden’s eyes might be fire, Ha Lin said, but Valyn’s were the remains after the fire had guttered out.
“We came… for you,” the sailor insisted.
Valyn felt suddenly dizzy, disoriented, and the ship seemed to roll more treacherously with the swells.
“Why?” he asked. “Who is ‘we’?”
“Aedolians,” the man managed. “The Emperor sent us.”
The Aedolian Guard. That explained both the professionalism and the Liran steel. The personal bodyguards of the Emperor were both well trained and well supplied; aside from the Kettral, they were the most fabled troops in the empire, iron-willed men whose loyalty to the Annurian throne was the stuff of legend. The founder of their order, Jarl Genner, had decreed that they take no wives, father no children, and own no property, all to ensure their unstinting allegiance to the Emperor and to the Guard.
None of which explained their presence here, on a clipper three full weeks’ sail from the capital, all of them dying or already dead. Or who could board such a ship and kill these men, some of the finest troops in the world. Valyn glanced back over his shoulder into the murky gloom of the hold, but whoever had wreaked the havoc appeared to be long gone.
The soldier was panting at the effort and the pain of speech, but he clenched his jaw and continued. “A plot. There is a plot. We were to… take you… away… protect you.”
Valyn tried to make sense of the claim. There were plenty of nefarious political currents in Annur, but the Kettral had chosen the Qirin Islands as their training ground and home because they were hundreds of leagues from anywhere. Besides, the Qirins were populated by the Kettral. The Aedolian Guard was storied, but the Kettral were legend. Anyone who planned to attack the Islands would have to be mad.
“Wait here,” Valyn began, although where the man would go he had no idea. “I have to tell someone. Fane. Eyrie command.”
“No,” the Aedolian managed, yanking a bloody hand from his jerkin and reaching toward Valyn, his voice surprisingly powerful. “Someone here… maybe someone important… is part of it.…”
The words landed like a slap. “Who?” Valyn demanded. “Who’s a part of it?”
The soldier shook his head wearily. “Don’t know…”
His head dropped to the side. Bright crimson blood hemorrhaged from somewhere beneath the jerkin, splattering Valyn and the surrounding deck in fading spurts. An arterial wound, Valyn realized… only, an arterial wound killed in minutes, not days. The man should have bled out onto the deck by the time his attackers slipped back over the gunwales. He stepped forward to part the soldier’s jerkin carefully and stared at the long gash, then turned his attention to the gore-drenched hand that had dropped limp into the Aedolian’s lap.
“There’s no possible way… ,” he muttered to himself. And yet, the evidence was clear.
The man had been holding his own artery, had forced his fingers in through the sagging rent in his flesh, found the slippery tube, and clamped it shut. It was possible—Ellen Finch had gone over the technique in medical training—but even Finch acknowledged that you’d be lucky to last a day in that state. The Aedolian had gone close to three, waiting for someone, praying to whatever god he had trusted in, a god who had fucked him over well and for good.
Valyn touched his fingers to the man’s neck. The pulse fluttered, faltered, then failed. He reached out to shut the eyes when Fane’s earsplitting roar yanked him upright.
“Cadets on deck! Bird incoming!”
Just as Valyn shoved open the hatch, an ear-rending screech split the morning air. He burned to tell someone what he’d just heard, but the soldier’s warning echoed in his ears: Someone here is part of it. At the moment, he wasn’t even sure he could have told anyone: all eyes were turned to the sky to see a kettral soar overhead, dark wings blotting the sun.
Even after eight years on the Islands, eight years learning to fly on, fight from, load up, and drop off of the massive birds, Valyn still wasn’t fully at ease with them. If the annals were correct, the species was older than men, older even than the Csestriim and the Nevariim, a throwback to the days when gods and monsters strode the earth. Though the Kettral had found them, had ostensibly tamed them, nothing in the dark, liquid eyes of the birds had ever looked tame to Valyn, and now, standing on the open deck as the great creature winged overhead, he thought he understood the terror of a mouse caught in the middle of a freshly mown field as the falcon takes to the air.
“Looks like the Flea’s bird,” Fane said, shading his eyes with a hand. “Although what he’s doing all the way out here I’ve got no ’Kent-kissing idea.”
Normally Valyn would have been intrigued. Although the Flea took his turn training cadets, he was one of the most deadly soldiers in the Eyrie’s very deadly collection, and spent most of his time flying missions in the northeast, into the savage Blood Cities, or against the Urghul, or to the south, where the jungle tribes constantly pressed up through the Waist. His arrival in the middle of a run-of-the-mill exercise was unusual, if not unprecedented. Such surprises helped to liven up the training, although, after Valyn’s encounter with the Aedolian, the black bird struck him as an inauspicious portent, and he looked over to take new stock of the cadets on deck. If the man hadn’t been lying, dark forces were in play on the Islands, and if Valyn had learned one thing with the Kettral, it was that surpises were safe only if you were on the delivering end.
Without warning, the bird tucked its wings, all seventy feet of them, tight against its body and, like a spear falling from the heavens, dropped toward the ship. Valyn and the rest of the cadets stared. All the Kettral could make flying mounts and dismounts; the creatures weren’t much good if you couldn’t get on and off them. But this? He’d never seen anyone come in so fast.
“There’s no way… ,” Lin breathed beside him, shaking her head in horror. “There’s just no—”
The bird was upon them in a rush of wind and a maelstrom of kickedup debris that almost knocked Valyn from his feet. Even as he shielded his eyes, he caught a glimpse of the creature’s talons reaching for the deck, a figure in Kettral blacks slipping loose from his harnesses, dropping to the boards, rolling smoothly to his feet. Before the wash of wind had subsided, the bird was gone, winging low over the waves to the north, and the Flea was there.
He didn’t look like much of a soldier. Where Adaman Fane was tall and built like a bull, the Flea was short and weathered, his tar-dark skin pockmarked from some childhood disease, a fuzz of gray hair hazing his head like smoke. The drop was a reminder, though, of what the man and his Wing were capable of. No one else made drops like that, not the other cadets, not the trainers, not Adaman Fane—and onto a moving ship! If Valyn had tried the same entry over water, he would have been lucky to walk away without shattering all his ribs. Over a pitching deck… forget it. He’d always thought the other Kettral were stretching the truth just a bit when they claimed that the Flea had flown more than a thousand successful missions, but that…
“That was uncharacteristically flamboyant,” Fane said with a raised eyebrow.
The Flea grimaced. “Sorry. Command sent me.”
“And in a ’Kent-kissing hurry.”
The smaller man nodded. He glanced over the assembled cadets, seemed to pause on Valyn, then took in the rest of the group before returning his attention to Fane. “You and your Wing are to be airborne as soon as possible. Yesterday, if you can manage it. You’ll follow me north. Sendra’s Wing’s already on the way.”
“Three wings?” Fane asked, grinning. “Sounds exciting. Where we headed?”
“Annur,” the Flea responded. He didn’t seem to share Fane’s enthusiasm. “The Emperor is dead.”
The Emperor’s Blades © Brian Staveley, 2014