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

The Providence of Fire: Chapter Three (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 and Tor Books UK. Read chapter three below, and check back every day this week for additional excerpts!

 

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

It was her eyes that would get her killed.

Adare understood that well enough as she studied herself in the full-length mirror, safe behind the locked doors of her chambers inside the Crane. She had exchanged her ministerial robes for a servant’s dress of rough wool, traded her silk slippers for serviceable traveling boots, discarded her silver rings and ivory bracelets, scrubbed the faint traces of kohl from her eyelids and ocher from her cheeks, scoured away the delicate perfume she had favored since her thirteenth year, all in the effort to eliminate any trace of Adare, the Malkeenian princess, the Minister of Finance, all in the hope of becoming no one, nothing.

Like killing myself, she brooded as she stared at her reflection.

And yet, there was no killing the flame in her eyes, a bright fire that shifted and burned even when she stood still. It seemed unfair that she should have to shoulder the burden of Intarra’s gaze without any possibility of reaping the rewards, and yet, despite coming into the world three years prior to her brother, Adare would never sit the Unhewn Throne. It was Kaden’s seat now. It didn’t matter that Kaden was missing, that Kaden was ignorant of imperial politics, that Kaden knew none of the players nor any of the games; it was upon Kaden that the entire empire attended. The fire in his eyes would put him on that massive seat of stone while the flame in hers might see her murdered before the week was out.

You’re being unreasonable, Adare chided herself silently. Kaden hadn’t asked for his eyes any more than she had. For all she knew, the conspiracy that ended her father’s life hadn’t stopped there. Stranded among oblivious monks at the end of the earth, Kaden would make a pitifully easy target. By now, he, too, could be dead.

A contingent of the Aedolian Guard had departed months earlier, led by Tarik Adiv and Micijah Ut. At the time, the decision had surprised her.

“Why not send the Kettral?” she had asked Ran il Tornja. As kenarang, il Tornja was Annur’s highest-ranking general, nominally in charge of both the Kettral and the Aedolian Guard, and as interim regent, he was responsible for finding Kaden, for seeing him returned safely to the throne. Dispatching a group of men by ship seemed a strange choice, especially for a leader who commanded an entire eyrie of massive flying hawks. “A Kettral Wing could be there and back in what… a week and a half?” Adare had pressed. “Flying’s a lot faster than walking.”

“It’s also a lot more dangerous,” the kenarang had replied. “Especially for someone who’s never been on a bird.”

“More dangerous than trekking through territory north of the Bend? Don’t the Urghul pasture there?”

“We’re sending a hundred men, Minister,” he’d said, laying a hand on her shoulder, “all Aedolians, led by the First Shield and Mizran Councillor both. Better to do this thing slowly and to do it right.”

It wasn’t the decision Adare would have made, but no one had asked her to make the decision, and at the time, she’d had no idea that il Tornja himself had murdered her father. She, like everyone else, had pinned the death on Uinian IV, the Chief Priest of Intarra, and only months later, when she discovered the truth, did she think back to the conversation, dread curdling in her stomach like rancid oil. Maybe il Tornja hadn’t sent the Kettral after Kaden because he couldn’t. The conspiracy couldn’t extend everywhere. If il Tornja wanted Kaden dead, the easiest place to do it would be in some ’Shael-forsaken mountains beyond the edge of the empire, and if the Kettral remained loyal to the Unhewn Throne, the regent would have to send someone else, a group he’d been able to deceive or suborn. That the Aedolians themselves, the order devoted to guarding the Malkeenians, might turn on her family seemed impossible, but then, so did her father’s death, and he was dead. She had seen his body laid in the tomb.

The facts were stark. Il Tornja had murdered Sanlitun. He had also sent Ut and Adiv after Kaden. If they were part of the larger conspiracy, Kaden was dead, dead while Adare herself remained unmolested, unharmed, to all appearances tucked safely away in her comfortable chambers inside the Dawn Palace, protected by her irrelevance. Emperors were worth assassinating. Evidently their daughters or sisters were safe.

Only, she wasn’t safe. Not really.

Her eyes strayed to the massive tome that was her father’s only bequest: Yenten’s cumbersome History of the Atmani. She had burned the message hidden inside, the terse warning in which Sanlitun fingered Ran il Tornja, Annur’s greatest general, as his killer, but for some reason she had kept the book. It was suitably grim, 841 pages detailing the history of the immortal leach-lords who ruled Eridroa long before the Annurians, then went mad, tearing their empire apart like a damp map.

Is that what I’m about to do? Adare wondered.

She had considered a dozen courses of action, and discarded them all, all except one. The gambit on which she finally settled was risky, more than risky, riddled with danger and fraught with uncertainty, and for the hundredth time she considered not going, giving up her insane plan, keeping her mouth shut, continuing her ministerial duties, and doing her very best to forget her father’s final warning. She had never set a foot outside the Dawn Palace without an entourage of Aedolians, never walked more than a mile on her own two feet, never bartered over the price of an evening meal or haggled for a room in a highway inn. And yet, to stay would mean returning to him, to il Tornja, would mean a daily miming of the love she had felt before she learned the truth.

The thought of going back to his chambers, to his bed, decided her. For a week after her horrifying discovery she had avoided him, pleading illness first, then absorption in her ministerial work. The labors of the Chief Minister of Finance, the post to which her father had appointed her in his final testament, might plausibly fill up a day or two, but she couldn’t dodge il Tornja forever, not without arousing suspicion. He had already come looking for her twice, each time leaving behind a small bouquet of maidenbloom along with a note in his crisp, angular hand. He hoped her fever would soon pass. He had need of her counsel. He missed the softness of her skin beneath his fingers. Skin like silk, the bastard called it. A month earlier the words would have called a flush to her cheek. Now they curled her fingers into fists, fists that, with an effort, she unclenched as she watched them in the mirror. Even something as insignificant as those pale knuckles might draw attention.

For the hundredth time she slipped the narrow strip of muslin cloth from the pocket of her dress. That and a small purse of coin were the only things she could afford to take with her; anything else would be noticed when she left the palace. The rest of what she needed—pack, pilgrim’s robes, food—she would have to purchase in one of the Annurian markets. Provided she could find the right stall. Provided her barter didn’t give her away immediately. She coughed up a weak laugh at the absurdity of the situation: she was the Annurian Minister of Finance, hundreds of thousands of golden suns flowed through her offices every week, and yet she’d never bought so much as a plum for herself.

“No time like the present,” she muttered, wrapping the muslin twice around her eyes, then tying it tight behind her head. Through the blindfold the edges of the world appeared softened, as though a heavy ocean mist had blown west off the Broken Bay, sifting between the shutters. She could see just fine, but it wasn’t her own sight she was worried about. The purpose of the cloth was to hide the simmering fire of her eyes. She already knew it worked. She must have tried it out a dozen times already, in daylight and darkness, studying her face from every possible angle, searching for the glint that would see her dead until her eyes ached from the strain. In daylight, it worked perfectly, but at night, with the lamps snuffed, if she looked at herself straight on, she could see the faint glow of her irises. Maybe if she just…

With a snort of irritation she tugged the fabric free.

“You’re stalling,” she told herself, speaking the words out loud, using the sound to goad her into action. “You’re a scared little girl and you’re stalling. This is why the old vultures on the council think you’re too weak for your post. This, what you’re doing right now. Father would be ashamed. Now stuff the ’Shael-spawned cloth back in your pocket, leave off mugging at yourself in the mirror, and walk out the door.”

Not that it was quite that easy. Beyond her outer door waited Fulton and Birch. The pair of Aedolians had watched over her each morning since she turned ten, their presence as reliable as the walls of the palace itself. She had always found them a comfort, two stones in the shifting currents of Annurian politics; now, however, she worried they might destroy her plan before she could set it in motion.

She had no reason to distrust them; in fact, she had thought long and hard about confiding in the two, about asking them to come with her when she fled. Their swords would make the long road that much safer, and the familiar faces would be dearly welcome. She thought she could rely on them, but then, she had relied on il Tornja, and he had killed her father. Fulton and Birch were sworn to guard her, but so were the men sent east to retrieve Kaden, and though they’d been gone for months, no one had heard anything from him.

Keep your own counsel, she reminded herself as she swung open the door. Keep your own counsel and walk your own path. At least she wouldn’t get them killed if her whole plan collapsed.

The Providence of Fire UK cover Brian StaveleyThe two soldiers nodded crisply as she stepped out.

“A new dress for you, Minister?” Fulton asked, narrowing his eyes at the sight of the rough wool.

“I understand wanting out of those miserable ministerial robes,” Birch added with a grin, “but I thought you could have afforded something a little more stylish.”

Birch was the younger of the two, a dashing portrait of military virility with his exotic blond hair and square jaw. He was pale, almost as pale as the Urghul, but Adare had seen plenty of bone-white northerners, mostly ministers and bureaucrats, come and go from the Dawn Palace. No one was likely to mistake Birch for a minister. The man was built beautifully as one of the sculptures lining the Godsway. Even his teeth were perfect, the kind of thing an artist might use as a model.

Fulton was older than his partner, and shorter, and uglier, but around the palace people whispered that he was the more deadly, and though Birch could be brash and outspoken around Adare—a familiarity earned after years dogging her footsteps—he deferred to the older man instinctively.

“I’m leaving the red walls,” Adare replied, “and I don’t want to be noticed.”

Fulton frowned. “I wish you had informed me earlier, Minister. I would have had your full guard armored and ready.”

Adare shook her head. “The two of you are my full guard, at least for today. I need to go to the Lowmarket, to check on the sale of gray goods for the ministry, and as I said, I don’t want to be noticed.”

“The Guard is trained in discretion,” Fulton replied. “We won’t draw undue attention.”

“Half a dozen men in full armor lugging broadblades?” Adare replied, raising an eyebrow. “I never doubted your discretion, Fulton, but you blend with the good citizens of Annur about as well as a lion with housecats.”

“We promise to purr,” Birch added, winking.

“Allow me just a moment to send a slave to the barracks,” Fulton said, as though the matter were already settled. “We will have a traveling contingent ready by the time you reach the gate. I will instruct them to wear cloaks over their plate.”

“No,” Adare replied. There was more stiffness in the word than she had intended, but everything hinged on this. Ditching Fulton and Birch would be difficult enough. If they managed to bring the full contingent, she’d be traveling inside a cordon of men like a fish caught in a loose net. “I understand that you’re just looking out for my safety,” she continued, trying to balance force with conciliation, “but I need an unvarnished view of what’s happening in the Lowmarket. If the stallholders know I’m coming, all the illegal goods will disappear by the time I get there. We’ll find a group of upstanding Annurian merchants hawking nothing more exciting than almonds and door fittings.”

“Send someone else,” Fulton countered, arms crossed. “You have an entire ministry under your command. Send a clerk. Send a scribe.”

“I have sent clerks. I have sent scribes. There are some parts of the job I must do myself.”

Fulton’s jaw tightened. “I don’t have to remind you, Minister, that the city is unsettled.”

“Annur is the largest city of the largest empire in the world,” Adare snapped. “It is always unsettled.”

“Not like this,” the Aedolian replied. “The priest who murdered your father was loved by thousands, tens of thousands. You revealed the truth about him, saw him killed, and then proceeded to force through a set of Accords that crippled his Church and his religion both.”

“The people don’t see it that way.”

He nodded. “Many may not, but many is not all. The Sons of Flame…”

“Are gone, I disbanded the military order.”

“Disbanded soldiers do not simply disappear,” Fulton replied grimly. “They keep their knowledge, and their loyalties, and their blades.”

Adare realized she had balled her hands into fists. The Aedolian had voiced her own secret hope—that the Sons of Flame were out there, and that they had kept their blades. In the stark light of day, her plan was madness. The Sons of Flame loathed her for what she had done to both their Church and their order. When Adare showed up in the southern city of Olon alone, unguarded, they were more likely to burn her than to hear her out, and yet she could see no other course.

If she was going to make a stand against il Tornja, she needed a force of her own, a well-trained military machine. Rumor out of the south suggested the Sons were regrouping. The force was there—hidden, but there. As for their loyalties… well, loyalties were malleable. At least she desperately hoped so. In any case, there was no point worrying the point further. She could wait in her chambers like a coddled lapdog, or she could take up the only weapon available to her and hope the blade didn’t slice straight through her hand.

“I will do what needs doing,” Adare said, forcing some steel into her voice. “Do you send a slave to guard my door each morning? No, you come yourself. A slave can polish your armor, but the heart of your duty can only be performed by you.”

“Actually,” Birch added, “he polishes his own armor, the stubborn goat.”

“We’re going out,” Adare continued. “Just the three of us. I have every faith in your ability to keep me safe, especially given no one will know who I am. You can bring your blades and wear your armor, but put something over it, a traveling cloak, and not one with the Guard’s ’Kent-kissing insignia emblazoned across it. I will meet you by the Low Gate at the next gong.”

 

Adare let out a long breath when she’d passed beneath the portcullis, crossed the wooden bridge spanning the moat, and slipped beyond the outer guardsmen into the turmoil beyond.

She risked a glance over her shoulder, unsure even as she turned whether she was checking for pursuit or stealing one final look at her home, at the fortress that had shielded her for more than two decades. It was difficult to appreciate the scale of the Dawn Palace from the inside: the graceful halls, low temples, and meandering gardens prevented anyone from seeing more than a sliver of the place at once. Even the central plaza, built to accommodate five thousand soldiers standing at attention, to awe even the most jaded foreign emissaries, comprised only a tiny fraction of the whole. Only from outside could one judge the palace’s true scale.

Red walls, dark as blood, stretched away in both directions. Aside from the crenellations and guard towers punctuating their length, they might have been some ancient feature of the earth itself rather than the work of human hands, a sheer cliff thrust fifty feet into the air, impassable, implacable. Even unguarded, those walls would pose a serious problem to any foe, and yet, it was never the red walls that drew the eye, for inside them stood a thicket of graceful towers: the Jasmine Lance and the White, Yvonne’s and the Crane, the Floating Hall, any one of them magnificent enough to house a king. In another city, a single one of those towers would have dominated the skyline, but in Annur, in the Dawn Palace, they looked like afterthoughts, curiosities, the whim of some idle architect. The eye slid right past them, past and above, scaling the impossible height of Intarra’s Spear.

Even after twenty years in the Dawn Palace, Adare’s mind still balked at the dimensions of the central tower. Partly it was the height. The spire reached so high it seemed to puncture the firmament, to scratch the blue from the sky. Climbing to the top of the Spear took the better part of a morning provided you started well before dawn, and in years past, some of Annur’s aging emperors had been known to take days to make the trip, sleeping at way stations set up inside the structure.

The way stations were a later addition. Everything inside the tower— the stairs, the floors, the interior rooms—was an addition, human cleverness cobbled onto the inside of a tower older than human thought. Only the walls were original, walls cut or carved or forged from a substance clear and bright as winter ice, smooth as glass, stronger than tempered steel. From the chambers inside, you could look straight through those walls, out onto the streets and buildings of Annur and beyond, far beyond, well out over the Broken Bay and west into the Ghost Sea. People journeyed from across the empire, from beyond her borders, just to gape at this great, scintillating needle. As much as the legions or the fleet, Intarra’s Spear, its presence at the very heart of the Dawn Palace, drove home the inevitability of Annurian might.

And it’s all just a few hundred paces from this, Adare reflected as she turned her back on the palace.

Surrounding her, literally in the shadow of the immaculately maintained walls, hunkered a long row of wine sinks and brothels, teak shacks slapped together, their walls as much gap as wood, crooked doorways and windows hung with limp, ratty cloth. The juxtaposition was glaring, but it had its logic: the Malkeenians maintained the right to raze fifty paces beyond the moat in the event of an assault on the city. There had been no such assault in hundreds of years, but those citizens rich enough to want fine homes were cautious enough to build them elsewhere, far enough from the palace that no skittish emperor would burn them in the name of imperial security. And so, despite their proximity to the palace, the streets and alleys surrounding Adare were all squalor and noise, the scent of cheap pork grilled to burning, rancid cooking oil, shrimp paste and turmeric, and, threaded beneath it all, the salt bite of the sea.

In the past, as befit her station, Adare had always departed the palace by the Emperor’s Gate, which opened westward onto the Godsway, and for a moment she simply stood, trying to get her bearings, trying to make sense of the cacophony around her. A man was approaching, she realized with a start, a hawker, the wooden bowl hung from his neck filled with some sort of blackened meat, the strips charred to their skewers. He was halfway into his pitch when Fulton stepped forward, shaking his grizzled head and grumbling something curt that Adare couldn’t quite make out. The vendor hesitated, glanced at the pommel of the blade protruding through the Aedolian’s cloak, then spat onto the pitted flags and moved away, already soliciting other business. Birch joined them a moment later.

“Over Graves?” he asked. “Or along the canal?”

“Graves would be safer,” Fulton responded, looking pointedly at Adare. “No crowds, fewer lowlifes.”

The district lay immediately to the west, rising steeply onto the hill that had once, as its name suggested, been given over entirely to funerary plots. As the city grew, however, and land became more precious, the well-to-do merchants and craftsmen who sold their goods in the Graymarket or along the Godsway had slowly colonized the area, building between the cemeteries until the entire hill was a patchwork of crypts and open land broken by rows of mansions with handsome views over the Dawn Palace and the harbor beyond.

“Graves would be longer,” Adare said firmly. She had made it past the red walls, but their shadow loomed, and she wanted to be away, truly buried in the labyrinth of the city, and quickly. Unwilling to tip her hand to the Aedolians, she hadn’t yet donned her blindfold, relying instead on the depth of her hood to hide her face and eyes. The meager disguise made her twitchy and impatient. “If we want to reach the Lowmarket and be back before noon, we’ll need to take the canal. It’s relatively straight. It’s flat. I’ve traveled the canals before.”

“Always with a full contingent of guards,” Fulton pointed out. Even as they stood talking, his eyes ranged over the crowd, and his right hand never strayed far from his sword.

“The longer we stand here arguing,” Adare countered, “the longer I’m outside the palace.”

“And we’re ducks here,” Birch added, his earlier playfulness gone. “It’s your call, Fulton, but I’d rather be moving than standing.”

The older Aedolian growled something incomprehensible, stared long and hard at the canal snaking away to the west, then nodded gruffly. “Let’s get across the bridge,” he said. “Less traffic on the southern bank.” He fell in on her left as they crossed the stone span, while Birch walked a few paces to the right, taking up a position between Adare and the waterway when they reached the far side.

The canal, like two dozen others coiling through the city, was as much a thoroughfare as the actual streets. Vessels crowded the channel, tiny coracles, barges, and slender snake boats, most loaded with wicker baskets or open barrels, most selling to the people on the shore, taking coin in long-handled baskets, and returning goods—fruit or fish, ta or flowers— with the same. People crowded both banks, leaning out over the low stone balustrades, shouting their orders to the boatmen. Every so often, something would drop into the water, and the half-naked urchins shivering on the bank would leap in, fighting viciously with one another in their eagerness to retrieve the sinking goods.

Without a score of palace guardsmen to clear a path, the walk took longer than Adare remembered. Though she stood taller than most women, almost as tall as Birch, she lacked the bulk necessary to force her way through the press of bodies. Fulton seemed to grow more tense, more wary, with every step, and Adare was starting to feel nervous herself, the relief of having slipped the noose of the red walls replaced by the constant pressure of sweating bodies all around her, the jostling and shouting, the hammering of a thousand voices.

By the time they broke into the relative tranquillity of the broad plaza facing the Basin, Adare could feel sweat slicking her back. Her breath was all bound up inside her chest and she let it out in a long, uneven sigh. Compared to the lanes fronting the canal, the plaza was wide and relatively empty, a huge sweep of stone flags dotted with knots of men and women. She could see more than two feet in front of her. She could move, breathe. How she would have managed the walk without Fulton and Birch she had no idea.

Well, you’d better figure it out soon, she told herself. You can’t take them with you.

She glanced out over the Basin, the wide semi-lake where the Atmani Canal ended after hundreds of miles, ramifying into half a dozen smaller conduits that would carry water and boats to the various quarters of the city. Scores of narrow long-keels swung at anchor, divesting their cargo onto smaller rafts or bobbing barrel-boats, then topping up on stores for the return trip south toward Olon and Lake Baku.

For a moment Adare paused, eyeing those craft. Her journey would be so much simpler if she could just choose one, step aboard, pay a captain for food and a luxury cabin, then spend the trip south rehearsing her meeting with the secretly reunited Sons of Flame and their shadowy leader, Vestan Ameredad. In many ways, the boat would be safer than taking her chances walking the long road—no prying eyes, no brigands, almost no human interaction. The prospect was so alluring.… Alluring and utterly stupid.

Even at a distance, Adare could make out tax inspectors in their stiff uniforms, members of her own ministry, moving up and down the quays, looking over the off-loaded barrels and bales. She stood far enough off that there was no chance of discovery, but she shrank back into her hood all the same. Within a day Ran would discover that his tame pet had gone missing, and when he came after her, he would expect her to think like a pampered princess. By the next morning, the kenarang’s minions would be crawling through all the most expensive inns and guesthouses in the city. They would be interrogating ship captains down in the harbor, and they would be all over the Basin asking questions about a young woman with coin in her pocket and hidden eyes.

Adare’s shoulders tightened at the thought of pursuit, hundreds of il Tornja’s men scouring the city for her, and she almost yelped when Fulton stepped closer, taking her firmly by the elbow.

“Don’t look over your shoulder, Minister,” he said, voice low. “We are being followed.” He glanced at his companion. “Birch, take second point, eyes on the northeast quadrant.”

Adare started to turn, but Fulton jerked her forward ungently.

“Don’t. Look,” he hissed.

Tiny barbs of fear pricked Adare’s skin. “Are you sure?” she asked. “Who is it?”

“Yes, and I don’t know. Two tall men. They just stepped into a ta shop.”

Instead of glancing back, Adare stared at the crowd moving and shifting around her. She had no idea how Fulton had picked two faces out of the chaos. There must have been thousands of people in the wide plaza— porters, bare-chested and bent nearly double beneath their loads; knots of garrulous women in bright silk, down from the Graves to pick over the newest goods before they reached market; beggars prostrated beside the fountains; wagon-drivers in broad straw hats prodding indifferent water buffalo through the press. Half an Annurian legion could have been following her through the crowd and Adare might not have noticed.

“There were hundreds of people moving west along the canal,” Adare whispered. “This is the busiest hour for the Basin. It doesn’t mean they’re all stalking us.”

“With due respect, Minister,” Fulton replied, herding her surreptitiously to the south, toward one of the smaller streets leading out of the broad square, “you have your business and I have mine.”

“Where are we going?” Adare demanded, risking a glance over her shoulder despite the Aedolian’s orders. Birch had taken a dozen steps back, his boyish face serious as he scanned the storefronts. “We’re headed south, not west.”

“We’re not going to the Lowmarket anymore. It’s not safe.”

Adare took a deep breath. Her entire plan hinged on going west, on getting through the broad plaza, then over the large bridge spanning the Atmani Canal. The fact that someone might have seen her leaving the Dawn Palace, that men might even now be tracking her through the city streets, only increased her urgency.

“Well, if someone is following, we have to go on,” she said. “We can lose them in the Lowmarket.”

Fulton glared at her.

“The Lowmarket is an assassin’s dream—constant crowds, miserable sight lines, and enough noise that you can’t hear yourself talk. I didn’t want you traveling there in the first place, and you’re certainly not going now. You can have me removed from my post when we return to the palace. Have me stripped of my steel, if you want, but until we return, until you do, it is my charge to guard you, and I intend to keep that charge.” His grip tightened on her elbow. “Keep moving. Don’t run.”

He glanced over his shoulder toward Birch, who flicked a series of hand signs, too quick for Adare to follow. The younger Aedolian looked grim and Fulton nodded curtly as he shepherded her toward the nearest street.

“Where are we going?” Adare hissed again. A return to the Dawn Palace was impossible. Il Tornja would hear of her departure and the strange conditions surrounding it. He would learn that she had been disguised, that she had insisted on a minimal guard, and he would want answers she was ill prepared to give. Even if, through some miracle, Adare was able to keep the abortive journey a secret, the Aedolians would never allow her outside the red walls without a full escort again. “Where are you taking me?” she demanded, vaguely aware of panic fringing her voice.

“Safety,” Fulton replied. “A storefront nearby.”

“We’ll be trapped in a ’Kent-kissing storefront.”

“Not this one. We own it. Run it. Called a rabbit hole—for situations like this.”

From out of the press, a vendor stepped toward them. He was a fat, genial man smiling a crack-toothed smile as he reached into the bulging cloth bag at his side.

“Firefruit, lady? Fresh from the Si’ite orchards and juicy as a kiss.…”

Before he could proffer the fruit in question, Fulton stepped forward. The Aedolian hadn’t drawn his blade, but he didn’t need to. His fist smashed into the vendor’s soft throat, and the man crumpled.

Adare pulled back, aghast.

“He was just trying to sell me something,” she protested.

The fruit seller rolled onto his side, a broken gargle escaping from his windpipe. Pain and panic filled his eyes as he tried to drag himself away on his elbows. The Aedolian didn’t spare him a glance.

“I didn’t swear an oath to guard his life. We are undermanned and far from the red walls. Keep moving.”

Behind them, Birch flicked more signals with one hand, the other ready on his sword. Adare felt her breath thicken inside her chest, her stomach churn. In a city of a million souls, she was trapped. Fulton’s firm hand on her elbow had seen to that. Once they left the plaza, there would be no way forward or back, nowhere to run. The Aedolians were only trying to keep her safe, but…

She stared at Fulton, at his grizzled face. What if they weren’t trying to keep her safe? Away from familiar eyes, the Aedolians could drag her into any old alley and finish the job. She pulled up short. They tried to keep you inside the palace, a voice in her head reminded her, but her ears were ringing and Birch was shouting something, quickening his pace to a trot as he waved them forward.

It has to be now, she realized. Whether the Aedolians were innocent or not, whether someone was really following them or not, return meant discovery, and discovery meant failure.

My father is dead, she reminded herself, and I am his last blade. Then, all in a burst, she yanked free.

Surprise twisted Fulton’s features. “Minister…” he began, but before he could finish, Adare turned and darted west, deeper into the plaza, toward the canal that emptied into the Basin. She needed to get over the bridge spanning that canal, then to the narrow watercourse draining away to the west. Just a few hundred paces, she thought, feet pounding on the wide stones. Just a few hundred paces and she’d be safe.

“Birch!” the Aedolian bellowed. The younger guardsman spun around, stretching out an arm to stop her, but he was too slow, baffled into momentary hesitation by her unexpected flight.

Adare ducked to the left, felt the fabric of the dress twist between her legs, and for a moment she was falling, careening toward the broad paving stones. She caught herself with an outstretched hand, pain tearing up her thumb and into her wrist, stumbled a few steps, heard Birch cursing behind her, and then she was running again, the treacherous dress hiked up above her knees.

Men and women paused to stare as she raced by, faces looming up one after the next, a series of still portraits: a startled child with wide brown eyes; a canal hand holding a long hook, half his face maimed by a vicious scar; a blond Edishman with a beard braided halfway down his chest. Her hood had fallen back revealing her face, revealing her eyes. People began to point, to exclaim. A few children even ran behind her hollering “princess” and “Malkeenian.”

She risked a glance over her shoulder—whether for the Aedolians or her more mysterious pursuit, she wasn’t sure. Fulton and Birch were charging after her, but they were a dozen paces back, and, with a flash of surprise, she realized that her plan, though battered, was actually working. The men were stronger than her by far, stronger and faster, but they wore a quarter of their weight in steel beneath those traveling cloaks. Adare had only her coin purse and the blindfold secreted beneath her robe.

Just a little farther, she told herself. A little farther and it won’t matter who saw.

She wasn’t sure how long she’d been running, but suddenly she was almost there, almost to the narrow spillover people called the Chute. The Chute wasn’t a proper canal. Unlike the half-dozen waterways that spread out from the Basin to the north, east, and west, all wide enough to permit the narrow canal vessels for which they had been dug, the side channel was barely six paces across, a miniature waterfall constructed to drain off the excess power of the canal’s current so that the other channels snaking through the city might flow more placidly.

On other visits to the Basin and the Lowmarket, Adare had seen grinning, naked children riding the Chute. They would leap in from the bridge above, then let the frothing current carry them away west, out of sight between buildings cantilevered out over the water. It had looked easy, fun. As she hoisted herself onto the wide, low balustrade, however, she froze, staring in dismay at the water below. She had remembered a short drop, maybe a few paces, into a swift, refreshing current. Her memory, evidently, had failed her.

Something had transformed the Chute from a giddy little overflow suitable for childish games into a churning, roiling current thrashing over and into itself, tossing foam a dozen feet into the air. Adare clung more tightly to the rail. There were no children in sight.

Autumn, she realized, her legs trembling from the frantic run and this new shock. She had seen the children swimming the Chute in early autumn, when the canals and the Basin itself sat at their lowest level. Now, though, it was the tail end of spring, and the current chewed ferociously at its banks like some hunger-maddened beast trying to break its bonds. Adare had learned to swim in the Emerald Pool back in the Dawn Palace. As a child, she had even prevailed upon her Aedolians to let her paddle around in the harbor on calm days. This, though—she wasn’t even sure she could swim in that furious current, certainly not in her exhausted state, not with the weight of the wool dress pulling her down. She started to climb back from the rail. She could keep running, outdistance her pursuit on foot, lose them in the alleys and side streets of Annur, hide out somewhere.…

A shout from the base of the bridge froze her in place.

Fulton and Birch had already reached the span, the younger Aedolian one pace in front of his companion, both of them bellowing something incomprehensible. Both were red-faced and sweating, but both looked ready to run another mile. She wouldn’t escape them on foot. She couldn’t. It was the Chute or nothing. Adare stared as they approached, paralyzed by her fear, her indecision.

Do something, she snarled at herself, glancing once more at the raging current below. Do something!

And then, with a cry that was half sob, half defiance, she was over, tumbling uncontrollably toward the thundering current.

 

Excerpted from The Providence of Fire © Brian Staveley, 2015

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