Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades on Tor.com

The Emperor’s Blades: Chapter Seven

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 Seven 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.

 

 

Seven

 

Adare hui’Malkeenian tried to keep her face still as the soldiers, resplendent in their full plate, dragged open the thick cedar doors to the tomb of her murdered father.

If you hope to play a part in this empire, Sanlitun had told her time and time again, you must learn to divorce your feelings from your face. The world sees what you allow it to see, judges you according to what you reveal.

“The world” seemed an apposite term for those who observed her now—tens of thousands of Annur’s citizens gathered in the Valley of Eternal Repose to see a great man laid to his rest in this narrow, treeless vale lined with the tombs of her ancestors. It would not do to weep before them, regardless of her grief. She already looked out of place, a young woman seated amidst the clutch of aging High Ministers, all of them men.

The position on the raised podium was rightfully hers twice over— once by dint of her royal birth and, most recently, as a result of her elevation to Minister of Finance, an elevation spelled out in her father’s testament. It was an important post, nearly as important as the kenarang or Mizran Councillor, and one for which she had been preparing for the better part of her life. I’m ready for this, she told herself, thinking back over the thousands of pages she had read, the countless delegations she had welcomed for her father, the ledgers she had studied late into the night. She understood Annur’s finances better than the outgoing minister, and yet she was certain that, to those assembled in the valley, she did not look ready.

She would look, to many of the thousands of eyes that rested upon her, like a woman too long without a husband and children, attractive enough to invite marriage (even without her imperial titles), if perhaps too thin, tall, and honey-skinned in a city where the fashion ran to voluptuous, small women with darker complexions. Adare knew well enough that her straight hair emphasized the angularity of her face, making her look slightly severe. As a child, she had experimented with other styles. Now the severity suited her purposes; when the assembled throng looked up at her podium, she wanted people to see a minister, not a simpering girl.

Of course, those who stood close enough were unlikely to remember anything but her eyes, irises that burned like coals. Everyone used to say that Adare’s eyes blazed even more brightly than Kaden’s, not that it mattered. Despite the fact that she was two years older, despite her father’s careful tutelage, despite her familiarity with the policies and politics of the Annurian Empire, Adare would never sit the Unhewn Throne. As a child, she had once been innocent enough to ask her mother why. It is a man’s seat, the woman replied, ending the conversation before it began.

Adare had not felt the full heft of that statement until now, seated among these men, waiting for the bier carrying her father to make its progress up the long valley. Though she, like they, wore dark ministerial robes cinched around the waist with a black sash, though the golden chain of office hung around her neck as it did around theirs, though she sat shoulder to shoulder with these few who, beneath the Emperor himself, ruled the civilized world, she was not one of them, and she could feel their invisible doubts, their decorous resentment cold and silent as snow.

“This is a place heavy with history,” Baxter Pane observed. Pane served as Chief Censor and Minister of Custom. Though, or perhaps because, his post was less significant than Adare’s, he was among those who had questioned her ascension most openly. “History and tradition.” That last word sounded like an accusation in his mouth, but gazing out over the Valley of Eternal Repose, Adare could not disagree. From Alial the Great’s stone lions to her own father’s façade, a rising sun in bas-relief above the doorway into darkness, she could trace the sure hand of the Malkeenian line.

“The problem with tradition,” observed Ran il Tornja, “is that it takes so much ’Kent-kissing time.” Il Tornja was the kenarang, the empire’s commanding general, and evidently some sort of military genius. The Ministerial Council, at any rate, had respected him enough to raise him to regent while Annur waited for Kaden’s return.

“Surely you bury your soldiers when they are killed in battle?” she responded pointedly. Il Tornja was, after Adare, the youngest person on the podium, perhaps somewhere in his mid-thirties. More important, he had been the only one who seemed to accept her appointment to Finance. He might make a natural ally, but she couldn’t help bristling at his tone. “Surely a general looks after his fallen men.”

He shrugged off the note of challenge in her voice. “If there’s opportunity. I’d rather be running down the ones who killed them.”

Adare took a deep breath. “There will be time enough for that, and soon. Uinian should be dead within the month—within the week, if I have my way.”

“I’m all for summary execution, but don’t you need some sort of trial? The man is the Chief Priest of Intarra. I imagine his congregation might take it amiss if you just hanged him from the highest tree.”

“My father went to the Temple of Light,” Adare said, enumerating the facts on her fingers. “He met with Uinian the Fourth in secret. He was murdered during that secret meeting.” She would have paid dearly to know why her father was meeting with the priest, why he had left behind the protection of his Aedolian Guard, but the outlines of his assassination were nonetheless clear. “Uinian will have his trial, and then he will die.”

A deep bass tolling of drums halted the conversation. Again those drums came, and again, stately and solemn, as though the earth itself were reverberating. The funeral procession remained out of sight beyond a bend in the canyon, but it approached.

“Five hundred white bulls were sacrificed at the funeral of Santun the Second,” Bilkun Hellel observed. The Azran Councillor was pink, oily, and grossly fat. His robes, cut of the finest cloth, fit him poorly. His small, shrewd eyes missed little, however, especially in the political realm. “It’s a shame we could not have made a similar show for your father.”

Adare waved the suggestion aside. “Five hundred bulls at ten suns apiece—five thousand suns. The coin is needed elsewhere.”

A smile creased the corner of the councillor’s mouth. “While I admire your mathematics, I’m not sure you realize the effect of such spectacle on the minds of the people. It glorifies your father and by extension your house.”

“My father would have hated this. The ostentation, the frippery.”

“It was your father,” Baxter Pane observed archly, “who ordered it in the first place.”

Adare opened her mouth to reply, then shut it firmly. She was here to mourn, not to trade barbs with old men who would never really listen to her anyway.

A hush fell over the valley as the first columns of Annurian foot marched into view, rank upon rank upon rank of soldiers, spears held at the same sharp angle, flashing points reflecting in the afternoon sun. A standardbearer marched at the center of each line, flying the bold, rising sun of Annur on white silk cloth while to either side of him drummers beat out the procession on huge skins drawn taut over wooden drums.

Aside from their standards the legions were identical: the same steel armor, the same half helms, the same long spear in every right hand, the same short sword hanging from each hip. Only the pennants streaming in the wind identified them: the Twenty-seventh, called the Jackals; and the Rock (the Fifty-first) from the northern Ancaz; the Long Eye from the Rift Wall; the Red Eagle and the Black; the Thirty-second, who called themselves the Bastards of Night; even the legendary Fourth Legion—the Dead—from deep in the Waist, where the fight to subdue the jungle tribes had never really ended.

Next came the regional militias—militarily insignificant, but more varied and colorful: The Raaltans carried ludicrously long broadblades and must have worn their own weight in gleaming steel plate, their standard, a windmill with whirling swords in place of vanes. Storms, Our Strength, read the words emblazoned beneath the emblem. Then a contingent of fourscore men in boiled black leather, each carrying a pitchfork.

“Fools,” Pane snorted. “Upjumped peasants with their farm implements.”

“Two hundred and twelve years ago,” Adare pointed out, “Maarten Henke carved out an independent kingdom with one of those farm implements. For fifty-four years, he defied Annurian rule effectively enough with his pitchfork.”

“Good weapon, a pitchfork,” il Tornja observed idly. “Reach. Penetrating power.”

“Henke was crushed,” Hellel said. “Another failed rebellion.”

“And yet, the man was hardly a fool,” she insisted, irritated that they seemed to be missing her point.

As the next group marched into view, her stomach seized.

“The Sons of Flame,” she muttered, grimacing. “After what Uinian did, they should not be here. They should not be.”

“While I happen to agree,” Hellel replied, passing a hand over his thinning hair, “what is to be done? The people love Intarra. Our esteemed regent,” he continued, nodding toward il Tornja, “has already imprisoned their Chief Priest. Take away their legion, and you might well have a riot.”

“It is a complex matter, Adare,” Pane added, raising his palms as though to placate her. “A subtle matter.”

“I understand the complexity,” she shot back, “but complexity is no excuse for inaction. Uinian’s trial may give us leverage in the weeks to come, leverage to disband their militia.”

Most imperial historians considered it a wise move to allow the provinces their small local armies—those armies provided an outlet for local pride and offered no real threat to the unity of the empire. Those same historians, however, had an entirely different opinion of Santun the Third’s edict allowing for the formation of religious military orders. “Ill-considered and unwise,” Alther wrote. Hethen went a step further, claiming the decision was “altogether lacking in common sense or historical perspective.” “Just plain stupid,” said Jerrick the Elder. Raaltans would never make common political cause with Si’ites, but both atrepies had citizens who worshipped Heqet and Meshkent, Ae and Intarra. It seemed never to have occurred to Santun that those citizens might very well join together for religious reasons and, in so doing, come to rival the strength of the Unhewn Throne. Miraculously, the worst had not come to pass. Most of the religious orders did maintain simple citizen groups to guard their temples and altars.

Uinian IV, however, the Chief Priest of Intarra, had been gradually building his forces for more than a decade. It was difficult to come up with an accurate estimate, but Adare reckoned they numbered in the tens of thousands spread across two continents. Worse, Intarra was the patron goddess of the Malkeenian line itself—the royal family with their blazing eyes claimed legitimacy precisely because of her divine favor. The growing power of the Temple of Intarra and its Chief Priest could only undermine the imperial mandate. Anyone wondering why Uinian would want to murder the Emperor need not have looked very far.

These troops were almost as neatly dressed as the Annurian legions, and like the legions, they eschewed martial pomp for serviceable weapons and armor. The first regiment carried flatbows while those behind bore a forest of short spears, the butts of which struck in cadence with their march. Also like the Annurians, these bore a sun standard, but unlike the symbol of imperial troops, it was not a rising sun, but a round orb in all its glory.

Only at the end of the long river of martial splendor did Sanlitun’s bier arrive. Twelve Aedolians bore it on their shoulders—the same twelve who had been charged with guarding the Emperor the day Uinian had plunged the blade into his back. As they drew closer, Adare could make out the neat bandages binding the end of each man’s wrist. Micijah Ut, the Aedolian First Shield since the death of Crenchan Xaw, had personally severed their sword hands. Why do you need swords, he had growled at them, rage rumbling beneath the words, when not a single one of you drew a blade to defend the Emperor?

Adare knew all twelve of the men—even the youngest had served in the Dawn Palace for the better part of five years. Anger and sorrow filled her at the sight of them. They had failed in their duty, and her father was dead because of that failure. And yet, her father had left them behind on his visit to the temple. It was difficult to protect a man who refused protection.

If the Aedolians felt the pain of their missing hands, they didn’t show it any more than they did the strain of bearing the Emperor’s bier. Each man’s face might have been chipped from stone for all the emotion he showed, and despite the sweat beading on their brows, the soldiers marched in precise lockstep.

When the bier reached the entrance to the tomb, the entire column halted abruptly. Soldiers stood at attention and the drums fell silent as Adare and the others descended the wooden steps from their platform.

The words spoken before the tomb were as long-winded as they were meaningless, and Adare let them wash over her like a frigid rain: duty, honor, power, vision. They were applied to all Emperors in all imperial funerals. They failed utterly to capture the father she had known. When it was finished, a huge Kreshkan tolled on his wide gong, and then she was following the bier into the darkness of the tomb itself.

The crypt smelled of stone and damp, and despite the torches blazing from the sconces, her eyes took a long time to adjust. When they did, she couldn’t help but smile through the welter of emotions. For all the severe grandeur of the tomb’s exterior, the inside was small, little more than a natural cave scooped out of darkness with a raised stone platform at its center. There were no carvings, no hangings on the wall, no piles of treasure.

“I had expected a little more… ,” Ran il Tornja began, waving a hand as he searched for the right word. “I don’t know… more stuff.”

Adare bit off a sharp retort. The other High Ministers had accompanied her into the tomb to pay their final respects. Crass though he might have been, il Tornja was now the highest-ranking man in the empire. It would not do to tangle with him before the others, especially given the fact that he seemed disposed to accept her recent appointment.

“Not from my father,” Adare replied simply. “He gave the people the show they required out there, but in here… the stone is enough. He would not have wanted to waste anything on the dead that could be of use to the living.”

The Aedolians lowered the bier into place, straightened from their burden, saluted the Emperor with their bandaged stumps, then filed silently from the chamber. The various ministers said a few words, and then they, too, took their leave until only Adare and il Tornja remained. Say what you have to say, she thought to herself, and give me a few final moments with my father. But il Tornja did not go, nor did he address the corpse.

Instead, he turned to Adare. “I liked your father,” he said, nodding casually toward the bier. “Good soldier. Knew his tactics.”

She bristled at the offhand tone. “He was more than a simple soldier.”

The kenarang shrugged. Il Tornja had held the post of kenarang barely more than a couple of years and was, of course, utterly new to the regency, and yet he didn’t seem to feel any of the awe that was so typical of newcomers to the capital. He didn’t seem to have much awe for her either. Most people quailed before Adare’s fiery gaze; he didn’t appear even to notice it. The man spoke as if he were seated in a tavern with his boots up, and she were the tavern wench. Come to think of it, he had more or less dressed for a tavern as well.

He was clean enough, but unlike the ministers in their somber robes or the soldiers in their crisp uniforms, il Tornja’s garb wasn’t the slightest bit funereal. He wore a blue cloak with a golden clasp over a blue doublet, the whole ensemble sumptuously tailored. A golden sash hung from his right shoulder, the metal inlaid with sparkling gems that might have been diamonds. If Adare didn’t know that the man had won dozens of battles, several of them against daunting odds, she might well have mistaken him for a masker who had stumbled into the tomb while looking for his stage.

The kenarang’s uniform was expensive, but the cloth itself was clearly just an excuse to show off the physique beneath. The tailor had known his work, cutting the fabric to pull tight over the muscles, especially when il Tornja moved. Although he stood just barely taller than she, he was built like one of the statues lining the Godsway. She tried ignoring him, focusing her attention on her father’s body.

“I’m sorry if I offended,” he replied, sweeping a little bow. “I’m sure your father was great at the whole lot of it—the taxes and road-building and sacrifices and the rest of the tedium an Emperor has to attend to. Still, he liked a good horse and a good sword.”

He delivered the last line as though it were the ultimate compliment.

“If only an empire could be governed with a sword from horseback,” Adare replied, careful to keep her voice cold.

“Men have managed it. That Urghul—what was his name? Fenner. He had an empire, and people say the man hardly ever dismounted.”

Fannar had a bloodbath that lasted twenty years. Within weeks of his death, the tribes had dissolved back to their age-old rivalries and his ‘empire’ was gone.”

Il Tornja frowned. “Didn’t he have a son?”

“Three. The two eldest were thrown on the funeral pyre with their father, and the youngest, as far as anyone knows, was gelded and sold to slavers from east of the Bone Mountains. He died in chains in Anthera.”

“Not such a good empire,” il Tornja agreed with a shrug. Fannar’s failure didn’t seem to trouble him in the slightest. “I’ll have to remember that, at least until your brother gets back.” He fixed her with a level stare. “I didn’t want it, you know. The regent thing.”

The regent thing. As though his ascension to the most powerful post in the empire were nothing more than an irritating chore that kept him from drinking or whoring or whatever it was he did when he wasn’t leading armies.

“Then why did you take it?”

His insouciance stung, in part because, though she had known Annur would never accept a woman in the post, she had hoped secretly that the Council of Ministers might appoint her nonetheless, at least for the short months until Kaden returned. Whatever battles he had won, il Tornja struck her as ill-suited to political rule.

“Why did they choose you in the first place?”

If the man took offense at the question, he didn’t show it. “Well, they had to pick someone.”

“They could have picked someone else.”

“Truth is,” he said with a wink, “I think they tried. There were votes and votes and votes. You know they lock you into that ’Shael-spawned hall until you come up with a name?” He blew out a long, irritated breath. “And there’s no ale. I’ll tell you that. Wouldn’t be so bad if there was ale.”

This man, the one who complains about a lack of ale during the conclave, is the one the ministers chose as regent?

“At any rate,” the kenarang continued, heedless of her dismay, “I don’t think many of them much wanted me. In the end, I think they picked me because I don’t have any plans for the governance of this fine empire.” He frowned apologetically. “I’m not saying I’m going to shirk my duty. I’ll see to what needs doing, but I know my limits. I’m a soldier, and a solider shouldn’t overstep himself when he’s not on the battlefield.”

Adare nodded slowly. There was a certain perverse logic to the decision. The various ministries were always jockeying for position: Finance with Ethics, Agriculture with Trade. No regent would actually try to seize power for himself, but the months during which Kaden was away would provide plenty of time to tip some very delicate scales. Il Tornja, on the other hand—the man was affable, a war hero, and perhaps most crucially, indifferent to political maneuvering.

“Well,” she replied, “the delegation left for Kaden just after my father’s death. If they have good winds to the Bend, they could be back in a matter of months.”

“Months,” il Tornja groaned. “At least it’s not years. What’s Kaden like?” “I barely know my brother. He’s been in Ashk’lan for half his life.” “Learning to run all this?” il Tornja asked, gesturing vaguely, presumably at the vast empire stretching away outside the walls of the tomb.

“I certainly hope so. The boy I knew liked to run around the palace waving a wooden stick in place of a sword. Hopefully he will shine as brightly as my father.”

Il Tornja nodded, looked over at the body of Sanlitun, then back at Adare. “So,” he said, spreading his hands. “Uinian. You plan to hold the knife yourself?”

Adare raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me?”

“The priest murdered your father. Once you go through the show of the trial, he’ll be condemned. What I wonder is, will you kill him yourself?” She shook her head. “I hadn’t considered the question. There is an executioner—”

“You ever kill a man?” he asked, cutting her off.

“I haven’t had much occasion.”

He nodded, then gestured to the bier. “Well, it’s your grief, and I don’t mean to tell you how to handle it. Ananshael has your father now, and Ananshael won’t give him back. Still, when the time comes, you may find it helps if you execute the bastard yourself.” He held her gaze a moment longer, as though to be sure she had understood, then turned on his heel and left.

Only then, when she was finally alone, did Adare allow herself to turn to her father’s bier. Sanlitun hui’Malkeenian’s body had been scrubbed, dried, and dressed by the Sisters of Ananshael, his mouth and nose stuffed with sweet-smelling herbs to keep off the stench of the rot. Even Intarra’s favor can’t hold off the Lord of Bones. The Emperor was dressed in his finest robes of state, his strong hands folded across his chest, fingers interlaced. Despite his pallor, he looked almost like the father she had known. If he had cried out or struggled in his final moments, the Sisters had smoothed his features until they were as stoic and somber in death as they had once been in life.

His eyes, however, those fiery eyes were closed. I never saw him sleep, she realized. She must have, surely, maybe when she was only a small child, but if so, those memories had dissolved. Every recollection she had of him involved that blazing gaze. Without it, he seemed smaller somehow, quieter.

Tears streamed down her cheeks as she took his hand. She had hoped for some message when his testament was read the week prior, some final note of love or comfort. But then, Sanlitun was never effusive. His only bequest to her was Yenten’s History of the Atmani, “that she might better appreciate our history.” It was a fine book, but just a book nonetheless. His true gift had been her appointment to the head of the Ministry of Finance, his belief that she was capable of the job.

“Thank you, Father,” she murmured. “You will be proud. If Valyn and Kaden are equal to their fate, then so am I.”

Then, anger welling inside her, she pulled the knife from the belt at his side.

“And, when the time comes for Uinian to die, I will wield the knife myself.”

 


The Emperor’s Blades © Brian Staveley, 2014

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