Brian Staveley’s The Providence of Fire on Tor.com

The Providence of Fire: Chapter Two (Excerpt)

The Providence of Fire, the second volume in Brian Staveley’s Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, sees the heirs of the assassinated Emperor of Annur fighting one another as well as the forces that conspired against their father.

Adare has learned the identity of her father’s killer, but she has few allies to challenge the coup against her family. While she rallies the people—who believe her touched by Intarra, patron goddess of the empire—to help her retake the city, she must face her brother Valyn’s rebel forces. Having allied with nomad forces, he brings war to the Annurian Empire.

Caught in the middle is Adare and Valyn’s brother Kaden, rightful heir to the throne. He has infiltrated the capital with the help of two strange companions, who possess knowledge that may save Annur… or destroy it.

The Providence of Fire publishes January 13, 2015 from Tor Books. Read chapter two below, and check back every day this week for additional excerpts!

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Plan might be too noble a word,” Pyrre said, reclining against a large boulder, head back, eyes closed even as she spoke, “but I’d like to think we had some sort of vague inclination.”

They’d made it back from the monastery easily enough, rejoining the rest of the group in the hidden defile where they’d set up camp. The other Kettral were checking over their weapons, the two monks sat cross-legged on the rough stone, while Triste fingered the long scab on her cheek, her wide eyes darting from one person to the next as though unsure where to look, who to trust.

Valyn studied the girl a moment, surprised all over again at the course of events that had led such a fragile, arresting young woman to this place, tangling her up in the same snare with soldiers and monks. She was a concubine, Kaden had said. Adiv had offered her to Kaden as a gift, one intended to distract the new emperor while the Aedolians made ready to murder him. Evidently, Triste wasn’t a part of the plot, but she was plenty distracting all the same. Valyn felt like he could watch her forever, but then, she wasn’t the one who needed watching. With an effort, he shifted his gaze to Pyrre Lakatur.

Valyn considered the woman, trying to figure her angle. He had always imagined the Skullsworn to be a sort of sinister mirror image of the Kettral— all blades and blacks and brusque efficiency. At the very least, he had expected the assassin-priests of the Lord of the Grave to be imposing. Pyrre, however, seemed more like a decadent atrep’s wife. The woman was elegant, almost flashy; rings sparkled on her fingers, a bright cloth band held back her hair, hiding the flecks of gray at her temples, and her tunic and leggings, though badly tattered by the violence of the preceding week, were cut of fine wool to flatter her form. She didn’t look like a killer, not at first glance, but the signs were there if you paid attention: the easy way she held her knives, switching readily between the standard grip and the Rabin; the way she always seemed to position herself, as now, with a cliff or boulder at her back; her apparent indifference to the bloodshed of the days before.

And then there was the way she smelled. Valyn still couldn’t put words to some of the things he could sense since emerging from Hull’s Hole. The slarn egg had changed him; the eggs had changed them all. That, evidently, had been the point of the final Kettral test, the reason all cadets were sent blind and bleeding into that endless cave on Irsk, scavenging the darkness for the eggs of those reptilian monsters. The eggs reversed the poison, but they did more, much more. Like the rest of the Kettral, any member of Valyn’s Wing could now see in the shadows and hear things at the edge of hearing. They were all stronger than they had been, too, tougher, as though some of the slarn’s wiry strength had been sewn into their flesh when they seized the eggs and drank. But only Valyn had found the dark egg, the one guarded by the king himself. Only Valyn drank the bilious tar while his body shook with the poison.

He was still struggling to understand what it had done to him. Like the others, he’d found his sight and hearing suddenly, if subtly, enhanced. He could hear small rocks clattering down the cliffside a hundred paces distant, could make out the pinions on the hawks that wheeled overhead… but there was more. Sometimes an animal fury clamped down on his heart, a savage desire, not just to fight and kill, not just to see the mission done, but to rend, to hack, to hurt. For the hundredth time, he remembered the slarn circling around and around him, eager claws scraping the stone. If they were now a part of his eyes and ears, were they also a part of his mind?

He set the question aside, focusing on the assassin. Smell wasn’t quite the right word. He could smell more acutely, to be sure—the woman’s sweat, her hair, even from two paces distant—but this vague sensation hovering at the edge of thought wasn’t that. Or it was that, but more. Sometimes he thought he was losing his mind, imagining new senses for himself, but the sensation remained: he could smell emotion now: anger, and hunger, and fear in all its infinite variation. There was the raw musk of terror and pinched hint of frayed nerves. Everyone in their battered group shared the fear, at least to some extent. Everyone but Rampuri Tan and the Skullsworn.

According to Kaden, Pyrre had come to Ashk’lan because she was paid to make the trip, to save his life, and she had rescued Kaden several times over. Despite an inclination to provoke Tan and the Kettral, she made a formidable ally. Still, how far could you trust a woman whose sole allegiance was to the Lord of the Grave? How far could you trust a woman who seemed, from both her smell and demeanor, utterly indifferent to death?

“I have a plan,” Kaden replied, glancing from Pyrre to Tan to Valyn.

Valyn stifled a groan.

 

The night before, after tethering the bird, walking the perimeter three times, and double-checking, to Gwenna’s great irritation, the flickwicks and moles she had hidden to guard both approaches to the pass, Valyn had climbed to the top of a large boulder, a jagged shard of rock set apart from the rest of the group. Partly he wanted the high ground, a spot with a clear view of everything below, and partly he wanted to be alone, to try to make sense of the events of the last few days, of his own role in the brutal fighting that had taken place. Kaden found him there just as night’s bleak stain leaked over the eastern peaks.

“Don’t get up,” Kaden said as he climbed the side of the rock. “If you start bowing now, I’ll throw you off the mountain.” His voice was quiet, ragged.

Valyn glanced over, hesitated, then nodded, returning his attention to the naked sword across his knees. His fight with Sami Yurl had left a tiny nick in the smoke steel halfway down the blade. He’d been at it with his stone for the better part of an hour, smoothing it out stroke by careful stroke.

“Have a seat,” he said, gesturing with the stone, “Your Rad—”

“Not that either,” Kaden groaned, perching cross-legged at the very lip of the boulder. “Save it for when someone else is listening.”

“You are the Emperor,” Valyn pointed out.

Kaden didn’t say anything. After a few licks of the stone, Valyn looked up to find his brother staring with those fiery eyes out over the valley below. The depths of the ravine were already sunk in shadow, but the setting sun had caught the far rim, drenching it in bloody light.

“I am,” Kaden said after what seemed like a long time. “Intarra help us all, I am the Emperor.”

Valyn hesitated, uncertain how to respond. During the fight two days earlier, Kaden had been cold as midwinter ice, calm and ready as any Kettral. That certainty, however, seemed to have vanished. Valyn had witnessed something like it on the Islands, had seen men and women, twentyyear veterans returning from successful missions, fall to pieces the moment they set foot back on Qarsh. There was something about being safe again, about being finally and undeniably alive after living so close to death, that made soldiers, good soldiers, soldiers who held it together for days or weeks under the most brutal circumstances, dance like madmen, collapse sobbing, or drink themselves nearly to oblivion over on Hook.

There’s no shame, the Kettral said, in crying in your own rack. The rest of the equation remained unspoken, axiomatic: you could cry all you wanted in your rack, provided you got up again in a day or two, provided that when you got up, you went back out, and that when you went back out, you were the baddest, fastest, most brutal motherfucker on the four continents. It wasn’t at all clear whether or not Kaden had that kind of resilience, that kind of resolve.

The Providence of Fire UK cover Brian Staveley“How are you?” Valyn asked. It was a stupid question, but every conversation had to start somewhere, and Kaden looked like he might sit cross-legged the whole night without saying another word. “After what we ran into down there?”

Valyn had seen scores of dead bodies in the course of his training, had learned to look at the hacked-up limbs and crusted blood the way another man, someone not raised by the Kettral, might consider a side of beef or a plucked rooster. There was even a certain satisfaction to be had in studying the aftermath of violence and seeing answers in the wreckage. As Hendran wrote in his Tactics: The deader a man gets, the more honest he becomes. Lies are a vice of the living. That was true enough, but Kaden hadn’t been trained to pick over bodies, especially not the bodies of his friends and fellow monks. It must have been hard to encounter them— even from a distance—burned and cut to pieces.

Kaden took a long, slow breath, shuddered for a moment, then fell still. “It’s not the older monks that bother me,” he said finally. “They had all achieved the vaniate, had found a way to snuff out their fear.”

Valyn shook his head. “No one escapes fear. Not really.”

“These men would have surprised you,” Kaden said, turning to look at him, face sober, composed. “The children, though, the novices especially…” He trailed off.

The wind had picked up as the sun set. It whipped around them, scrabbling at hair and clothes, tugging Kaden’s robe, threatening to rip him off the rock. Kaden didn’t seem to notice. Valyn searched for something to say, some comfort he might offer, but found nothing. The Shin novices were dead, and, if they were anything like everyone else, they had died in pain and terror, baffled, confused, and suddenly, utterly alone.

“I wonder,” Kaden said quietly, “if I shouldn’t let them have it.”

It took Valyn a moment to find his bearings in the shifting conversation, but when he did, he shook his head curtly.

“The Unhewn Throne is yours,” he said firmly, “as it was our father’s. You can’t surrender it because of a handful of murders.”

“Hundreds,” Kaden replied, voice harder than Valyn expected. “The Aedolians killed hundreds, not a handful. And the throne? If I’m so desperate to sit on top of a chunk of rock, there are plenty.” He gestured into the night. “I could stay right here. The view is better and no one else would be killed.”

Valyn glanced over his blade, ran a finger along the edge, feeling for the nick.

“Are you sure about that?”

Kaden laughed helplessly. “Of course I’m not sure, Valyn. Let me list for you the things I know for sure: the print of a brindled bear, the color of bruiseberries, the weight of a bucket of water…”

“All right,” Valyn said. “I get it. We’re not sure about anything.”

Kaden stared at him, the fire in his irises so bright it had to hurt. “I know this: the Aedolians came for me. The monks died because of me.”

“That’s the truth,” Valyn replied, “but it’s not the end of the truth.”

“You sound like a monk.”

“The killing is aimed at you right now, but it won’t stop with you. Let me tell you something I know: men are animals. Look anywhere you want: Anthera or the Blood Cities, the jungle tribes of the Waist, look at the fucking Urghul, for ’Shael’s sake. People kill to get power, they kill to keep power, and they kill if they think they might lose it, which is pretty much always. Even if you and I both stay out of it, even if we both die, whoever came after us will keep coming. They’ll find the next threat, the next worrisome voice, the next person with the wrong name or the wrong skin. Maybe they’ll go after the rich for their coin or the peasants for their rice, the Bascans because they’re too dark or the Breatans because they’re too pale—it doesn’t matter. People who will murder monks will murder anyone. I trained with bastards like this. They won’t back off because you give up. They’ll come on harder. Do you get that?”

Valyn fell silent, the words drying up as suddenly as they had come. He was panting, he realized. Blood slammed in his temples and his fingers had curled into fists so tight they hurt. Kaden was watching him, watching him the way you might watch a wild animal, wary and uncertain of its intent.

“We’ll find him,” Kaden said finally.

“Find who?”

“The Kettral leach. Balendin. The one who killed your friend. We’ll find him, and we’ll kill him.”

Valyn stared. “This isn’t about me,” he protested. “That’s my point.”

“I know,” Kaden replied. Somehow, the uncertainty had sloughed off of him. There was a distance in those burning eyes again, as though Valyn was seeing them from miles away. “I know it isn’t.”

They sat awhile, listening to a rockfall farther down the ridgeline. It sounded like a series of explosions, like Kettral munitions, only louder, boulders the size of houses loosened by winter ice losing their hold, shattering to pieces on the rocky slopes below.

“So,” Valyn said warily, “no more bullshit about sitting the fight out on a piece of rock in the middle of the mountains.”

Kaden shook his head.

“Good. Now what’s the plan?”

Valyn had heard it once already, the outlines at least, but he hoped to Hull that a day and a night had been enough for Kaden to change his mind. That hope shattered after a glance at his brother.

“The way I told you,” Kaden replied. “We split up. Tan and I go to the Ishien—”

“The Ishien,” Valyn said, shaking his head. “A group of monastics even more secretive and strange than your Shin monks. A cadre of fanatics that you’ve never even met.”

“They know about the Csestriim,” Kaden replied. “They hunt the Csestriim. It’s what they do, why their order was founded. All those old stories about centuries of war, about humans fighting for their lives against armies of immortal, unfeeling warriors—most people think it’s all just myth. Not the Ishien. For them, the war never ended. They are still fighting. If I’m going to survive, if we are going to win, I need to know what they know.”

Valyn bore down on the stone, scraping it over the steel more roughly than he’d intended. He and his Wing had risked everything to come after Kaden, had thrown away their place on the Islands and their years of training both. Already they had been betrayed, captured, and almost killed, and there was a very real chance that by the time the whole thing had played out, more than one of them would be dead. That part was fine. They all understood the risks, had all accepted years earlier that they might die defending the Emperor and empire. To let Kaden wander off, however, to be ordered to stand aside while he threw himself into danger, was both stupid and insulting. The whole thing set Valyn’s teeth on edge.

“Your monk friend doesn’t seem to think too highly of the plan, and he’s the one who spent some time with these bastards, right?”

Kaden blew out a long breath. “Rampuri Tan was one of the Ishien before he came to the Shin. For years.”

“And then he left,” Valyn pointed out, letting the last word hang in the air a moment. “Doesn’t speak too highly of this private war of theirs.”

“It’s not a private war,” Kaden replied. “Not anymore. Not if the Csestriim killed our father.”

“All right,” Valyn said. “I take the point. So let’s fly there together. My Wing can watch your back while you learn what you need to learn, then we all go to Annur together.”

Kaden hesitated, then shook his head. “I don’t know how long I’ll be with the Ishien, and I need you back in Annur as soon as possible. We don’t know the first thing about what’s going on in the capital.”

“We know that that priest, Uinian, is locked up for Father’s murder,” Valyn replied.

“But what does that mean?”

Valyn found himself chuckling bleakly. “Well, either Uinian did it or he didn’t. Maybe he’s Csestriim, and maybe he’s not. If he is involved, either he acted alone, or he didn’t. My guess is that he had some sort of help—that would explain his ability to turn Tarik Adiv and Micijah Ut, to suborn at least a Wing of Kettral, but then again, maybe they all had a sudden upwelling of religious sentiment.” He shook his head. “It’s tough to see the situation clearly from atop this rock.”

“That’s why I need you in Annur,” Kaden said. “So that when I return, I’ll have some idea what I’m up against. Time is crucial here.”

Valyn watched his brother. The first stars blazed in the eastern sky, but Kaden’s eyes burned brighter, the only true light in the great dark of the mountains. There was something in the way he sat, in the way he moved or didn’t move, something Valyn could apprehend only dimly.…

“That’s not the only reason,” Valyn said finally. “You want us in Annur, but that’s not all. There’s something else.”

Kaden shook his head ruefully. “I’m supposed to be the one who’s good at noticing things.”

“What is it?” Valyn pressed.

Kaden hesitated, then shrugged. “There are gates,” he said finally. “Kenta. I should be able to use them. It’s why I was sent here in the first place, but I need to test them. I need to know.”

“Gates?”

“A network of them, made by the Csestriim thousands of years ago and scattered across both continents.” He hesitated. “Maybe beyond both continents for all I know. You step through one kenta and emerge from a different one hundreds of miles distant. Thousands of miles. They were a Csestriim weapon, and now they are entrusted to us, to the Malkeenians, to keep and to guard.”

Valyn stared for a moment. “Slow down,” he said finally, trying to make sense of the claim, to comprehend the full scope of the implications. Ancient Csestriim gates, portals spanning continents—it sounded like insanity, but then, pretty much everything since leaving the Islands had seemed insane. “Go back and tell it from the start.”

Kaden remained silent a moment, gathering his thoughts, and then, as Valyn listened in disbelief, explained it all: the Blank God and the Csestriim leaches, the war against the humans and the founding of the empire, the vaniate—some strange trance that the Shin had somehow learned from the Csestriim, that Kaden himself had learned from the Shin—and the annihilation that threatened anyone who attempted to use the gates without achieving it. According to Kaden, Annur itself hinged on the network of kenta, hinged on the ability of the emperors to use them. The concept made tactical and strategic sense. The Kettral enjoyed a crushing advantage over their foes because the birds allowed them to move faster, to know more, to turn up suddenly where no one expected them to be. The gates, if they were real, would prove even more powerful. If they were real. If they actually worked.

“Have you seen one?” Valyn asked. “Have you seen anyone use one?”

Kaden shook his head. “But there’s a kenta near here in the mountains, one that leads to the Ishien. I asked Tan about it earlier.”

Valyn spread his hands. “Even if it’s real, even if it does what the monk claims, it could kill you.”

“Obliterate is more like it, but yes.”

Valyn slid his sword back into its sheath, tucked the small stone into a pouch at his belt. The wind was cold, sharp, the stars like shards of ice scattered across the clear night.

“I can’t let you do it,” he said quietly.

Kaden nodded, as though he had expected the answer. “You can’t stop me.”

“Yes, I can. The whole thing is worse than foolish, and I know something about foolish.” He ticked off the problems on his fingers. “Your monk is, at best, a mystery; these gates have the power to destroy entire armies; and the Ishien, given what little we know about them, sound like obsessive maniacs. It is a bad decision, Kaden.”

“Sometimes there are no good decisions. If I’m going to thwart the Csestriim and rule Annur, I need the Ishien, and I need the gates.”

“You can wait.”

“While our foes consolidate their power?” Kaden turned to watch him. Valyn could hear his brother’s breathing, could smell the dried blood on his skin, the damp wool of his robe, and beneath it, something else, something hard and unbending. “I appreciate you trying to keep me safe,” he said quietly, laying a hand on Valyn’s shoulder, “but you can’t, not unless we live here in the mountains forever. Whatever path I take, there is risk. It comes with ruling. What I need from you most is not safety, but support. Tan doubts me. Pyrre challenges me. Your Wing thinks I’m an untrained, guileless recluse. I need you to back me.”

They locked eyes. The plan was madness, but Kaden didn’t sound mad. He sounded ready.

Valyn blew out a long, frustrated breath. “What happened to sitting on this rock while the Csestriim rule Annur?”

Kaden smiled. “You convinced me not to.”

 

“The plan,” Kaden said, facing down the group with more poise than Valyn would have expected, “is that Tan and I are going to the nearest kenta—he says there is one in the mountains northeast of here. We will all fly there, Tan and I will use the gate to reach the Ishien, and the rest of you will fly on to Annur. Once you’re in the city, you can contact my sister, Adare, and learn what she knows. Tan and I will meet you in the capital, at the Shin chapterhouse.”

“In my experience,” Pyrre drawled, “plans tend to be a little heavier on the ‘hows’ and the ‘if, thens.’ ”

“Why don’t we all just take this fucking kenta thing?” Gwenna demanded. Valyn’s Wing had greeted Kaden’s explanation of the gates first with amusement, then skepticism, then wariness, and though Valyn himself understood the response, shared it, in fact, he had promised Kaden his support.

“Gwenna…” he began.

“No, really!” she said, rounding on him. “If these things are real, we could save a whole lot of Hull’s sweet time using them. They eat less than birds and I can’t imagine they shit at all.…”

“The kenta would destroy you,” Tan said, cutting through her words.

Pyrre raised an eyebrow. “How frightening. They sound like fascinating artifacts, but this is all beside the point. My contract stipulates I keep Kaden safe. Playing nursemaid for his brother might be entertaining, but it’s not what I crossed half of Vash to accomplish.”

Valyn ignored the jibe. “The Emperor has decided,” he said. “It is ours to obey.”

The words were true enough, but they did little to allay his misgivings. Orders, he reminded himself. You’re following orders.

Orders hadn’t been too much trouble for him back on the Islands—he had been a cadet then, and the men and women telling him what to do had earned their scars dozens of times over. Kaden, on the other hand, might be the rightful Emperor, but he was no soldier; he had none of the training, none of the instincts. Letting him get involved with the reconnaissance of Ashk’lan at an immediate, tactical level had been a mistake. Valyn’s mistake. Not only had Kaden interfered with a crucial decision, he had put himself in harm’s way to do so. And Adiv was alive. Valyn forced down the thought along with his mounting anger.

Kaden was the Emperor, and Valyn hadn’t flown two thousand miles just to undermine his brother’s nascent authority.

“I have told you before,” Tan said, shaking his head slowly, “the Ishien are not like the Shin.”

“As I recall,” Kaden replied, “no one is like the Shin.”

“You thought your training hard?” the older monk asked. “It was a pleasant diversion compared with what the Ishien endure. They have a different path and different methods, methods that lead to unpredictable results. It is impossible to know how they would respond to our arrival.”

“You were one of them once,” Kaden pointed out. “They know you.”

“They knew me,” Tan corrected. “I left.”

“If you don’t want the imperious young Emperor to go through the mysterious gate,” Pyrre opined, flipping a knife in the air and catching it without opening her eyes, “then don’t show him where the gate is.”

Kaden turned to the Skullsworn. “Why does it matter to you what course I follow?”

She flipped the knife again. “As I’ve explained, I was paid to keep you safe. No one’s stuck a blade in you yet, but I wouldn’t call this”—she waved her knife at the surrounding peaks—“safe.”

On that point, at least, she and Valyn agreed.

“I release you from your contract,” Kaden said.

She chuckled. “You can’t release me. I understand that you’ve had a very exciting promotion, but I serve a god, not an emperor, and Ananshael is quite clear about the honoring of contracts.”

“And what,” Valyn asked finally, unable to hold on to his silence any longer, “are the exact terms of your contract? To protect Kaden at Ashk’lan? To escort him back within the borders of Annur? Or is it a permanent thing—you have to follow him around the rest of his life, making sure no one sticks a knife in his back while he’s eating braised duck or making love to his future empress? I’m not sure the Aedolians—let alone the empress—will appreciate a Skullsworn lurking around the halls.”

Pyrre laughed a warm, throaty laugh. “One could be forgiven, after the recent performance of the Aedolian Guard, for thinking the new Emperor might prefer a change of personnel.” She looked over at Kaden with that half smile of hers, raising an inquisitive eyebrow. When he didn’t respond, she shrugged. “Sadly, I won’t be fluffing his imperial feather bed or massaging his radiant buttocks. My task is to see him back to the city of Annur, to ensure that he reaches the Dawn Palace safely. After that, our time together, sweet though it has been, is finished.”

Valyn studied the woman, trying to see past the careless façade, the casual bravado, past the very real fact of the ’Kent-kissing knife she kept flipping and flipping.

“Who hired you?” he asked.

She raised an eyebrow. “That would be telling.”

“It’s time to do some telling,” Valyn said, shifting to put a little more space between himself and the Skullsworn.

She noticed the movement, caught her knife, and smiled. “Nervous?”

“Cautious,” Valyn replied. “A Skullsworn shows up in the Bone Mountains, just about as far as you can get from Rassambur without hiring a ship, claiming she has come to guard an emperor when the whole world knows the Skullsworn pay no fealty to any state, kingdom, or creed but their own sick worship of death.”

“Sick,” she replied, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. “Sick. How uncharitable. There are priests and priestesses of Ananshael who would kill you for those words.” She tapped the blade of her knife speculatively against her palm. “Are you interested in seeing how your Kettral training holds up against someone more skilled than those cumbersome Aedolians?”

Valyn measured the ground between them. The woman hadn’t moved, hadn’t even bothered to sit up, but a quick flick of the wrist would send that blade straight at his chest, and he didn’t have any illusions about his ability to snatch daggers out of the air. She didn’t smell scared. She smelled… amused.

“I am interested,” he said, keeping his voice level, his anger in check, “in understanding why you are here. In knowing who hired a Skullsworn to guard an Annurian emperor.”

She watched him carefully, almost eagerly, as though she were hoping he might reach for his blades, then shrugged and put her head back against the rock, closing her eyes.

“You haven’t guessed?” she asked.

Valyn had plenty of guesses, but none of them made much sense. The Skullsworn were assassins, not saviors.

“My father,” Kaden said quietly. “Sanlitun hired you.”

Pyrre pointed at him without opening her eyes.

“He’s not quite as hopeless as he looks, this new Emperor of yours.”

Valyn glanced over at Kaden. “Why would Father send Skullsworn?”

“Maybe because the ’Kent-kissing Aedolian Guard turned out to be filled with traitors and idiots,” Gwenna observed. “The men he sent to warn you got themselves killed, and the ones who came for Kaden came to kill him.”

“It makes sense,” Kaden said. “A strange sort of sense. He didn’t know who was a part of the conspiracy, and so he tried to protect each of us in a different way. He sent his most trusted Aedolians after you, but one of them must have let the plan leak. For me, he decided to send people who weren’t involved with imperial politics at all.”

Valyn blew out a long, slow breath. It did make sense. It also spoke to Sanlitun’s level of desperation. The Skullsworn, after all, had been hired in the past to murder Annurian emperors.

He shook his head. “Well, it’s a good fucking thing whoever we’re fighting against didn’t hire their own batch of Skullsworn.”

Pyrre chuckled. “They did. Who do you think killed the boatload of Aedolians dispatched to warn Valyn?”

Valyn stared. “You bastards are fighting on both sides of this thing?”

“Kill her,” Gwenna said. “Let’s just kill her and be done with it.”

The assassin didn’t even open her eyes at the threat. “I like meeting a young woman with a decisive cast of mind,” she said. “I’d prefer not to offer you to the god just because you’re feeling rash. And yes, we are, as you point out, on both sides, but only because to a worshipper of Ananshael, these sides don’t matter. There are the living, and the dead. If a contract involves killing, and there is enough gold involved, we will take the contract, the keeping of which is an act of holy devotion. I am obliged to see Kaden to Annur, even if it means opening the throats of other priests and priestesses in the process.”

“In that case,” Kaden said, “my plan is the best for you, too. I get back to Annur faster, which means your work is over sooner.”

Pyrre waved an admonitory finger at him. “In theory.”

“The assassin is irrelevant,” Tan cut in.

“The assassin takes issue with that statement,” Pyrre shot back, “and she points out once again that if you don’t want your precocious young leader to go through your secret gate, you could simply avoid showing him said gate.”

For a moment Tan actually seemed to consider the suggestion, then shook his head. “Though his mind moves like a beast’s, he is not a beast. To pen him would only delay the inevitable. He must reach these decisions on his own.”

“I’m just waiting for you all to figure it out,” Valyn said firmly, “but let’s be really clear on one point: Kaden is the Emperor of Annur. He rules here, and if there’s too much more talk about ‘penning,’ or ‘beasts,’ then either you”—he pointed at the assassin—“or you”—at Tan—“are going to end up dead in the bottom of a ravine.”

“How spirited,” Pyrre said, flipping her knife again, “and fraternal.”

Tan ignored the warning altogether, and not for the first time Valyn found himself wondering about the monk’s past. That Pyrre seemed indifferent to the presence of a Wing of Kettral made a certain sense—the Skullsworn supposedly left behind all fear of death in the process of their initiation. The monk, on the other hand, was an utter enigma. Evidently he’d destroyed a number of the freakish Csestriim creatures—ak’hanath, Kaden called them—in the fighting days earlier, but as Valyn never saw the things alive, he wasn’t sure how difficult that would be. The monk carried his spear as though he understood how to use it, but there was no telling where he had learned. Perhaps among these Ishien that Kaden was so eager to visit.

“There’s really only one question,” Kaden said. “Will the Ishien help me?”

Tan considered the question. “Possibly.”

“Then we go.”

“Or they might not.”

“Why? Their war is against the Csestriim, as is mine.”

“But their path is not yours.”

Kaden seemed about to respond, then took a deep breath, held it for a while before exhaling slowly as he gazed over the mountains. Partly, Valyn felt sorry for his brother. He himself had spent enough time trying to corral an unruly Wing that he understood the frustrations of thwarted command. Kaden had it even worse. At least Valyn’s Wing, for all their difficulty, were as young and green as he was. Rampuri Tan had been Kaden’s instructor, his teacher until the destruction of Ashk’lan, and wrangling the monk looked about as easy as hauling a boulder uphill. Tan appeared as indifferent to Kaden’s imperial title as he did to Valyn’s military rank and training. If the older monk was going to be convinced, it would be for reasons Valyn would never fathom.

“Then what do you suggest?” Kaden asked, showing impressive restraint.

“Fly me to the kenta,” Tan replied. “I will visit the Ishien, learn what they know, while you return to the capital with your brother. We will all meet in Annur.”

Kaden said nothing. He stared out over the western peaks so long that eventually even Pyrre propped up her head, squinting at him between slitted lids. Tan also remained motionless, also staring west. No one spoke, but Valyn could feel the tension between the two monks, a silent struggle of wills.

“No,” Kaden said at last.

Pyrre rolled her eyes and dropped her head back against the rock. Tan said nothing.

“I will not be shepherded from place to place, kept safe while others fight my battles,” Kaden said. “The Csestriim killed my father; they tried to kill me and Valyn. If I’m going to fight back, I need what the Ishien know. More, I need to meet them, to forge some sort of alliance. If they are to trust me, first they have to know me.”

Tan shook his head. “Trust does not come easily to the men of the order I once served.”

Kaden didn’t flinch. “And to you?” he asked, raising his brows. “Do you trust me? Will you take me to the kenta, or do I need to leave you behind while Valyn flies me all over the Bones searching?”

The monk’s jaw tightened. “I will take you,” he said finally.

“All right,” Valyn said, rolling to his feet. He didn’t like the plan, but at least they were moving, at least they were finally doing something. All the sitting and talking was keeping them pinned down, making them easier to find, to attack. “Where are we going?”

“Assare,” Tan replied.

Valyn shook his head. “Which is what… a mountain? A river?”

“A city.”

“Never heard of it.”

“It is old,” Tan said. “For a long time it was dangerous.”

“And now?”

“Now it is dead.”

 

Excerpted from The Providence of Fire © Brian Staveley, 2015

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