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

The Providence of Fire: Chapter Four (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 four below, and check back every day this week for additional excerpts!

 

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

Well, that’s not on the ’Kent-kissing maps,” Gwenna shouted from her perch on the Kettral’s other talon, pitching her voice to carry above the wind’s fury.

Valyn settled for a nod in response, not trusting himself to open his mouth without losing his tongue to his chattering teeth. Back in the Qirins it would be good swimming weather already, but late spring in the Bone Mountains would be called winter anywhere else, especially when you were flying three thousand paces up. Even Valyn’s heaviest blacks did little to blunt the biting wind.

He squinted through frozen lashes, trying to make better sense of the valley beneath them, a gouge running east to west, so deep and narrow he could only see the bottom when they passed directly overhead. They’d been quartering this section of the peaks for the better part of the afternoon, searching the desolate gray stone and ice for some sign of Rampuri Tan’s lost city. The monk had given Valyn a rough idea where to look, but the details were hazy.

“I have been there only twice,” Tan told him earlier, his tone suggesting Valyn was a fool for pursuing the issue, “and I never approached from the air.”

Which meant a long and very cold grid search. The Kettral had the most accurate maps in the world—coastlines and rivers were easy to chart from atop a soaring bird—but no one had bothered to explore deep into the Bone Mountains. The granite spires and high, snowbound valleys were too rugged and remote to be of any military interest: no one was taking an army through the Bones, and, aside from a few rough mining villages far to the south, no one was living there either.

Valyn would have said that large-scale habitation was impossible this far north, but he could just make out, carved into the sheer granite wall of the deep valley directly below, a series of rectangular holes and open ledges. The stonework was so ancient, so roughened by wind and weather, that it took him a moment to realize he was looking at stairs and chimneys, windows and balconies, all honeycombing the vertical side of the cliff. Assare, the dead city promised by Rampuri Tan.

About time, Valyn thought, clenching his jaw against the cold. He reached over to tap Kaden on the arm, then pointed.

Kaden took a firm hold on the overhead strap, then leaned out a little farther from the talon to get a better look. Despite his lack of training, he was handling these early kettral flights with surprising composure. Valyn himself had been terrified of the birds when he first arrived on the Islands, but Kaden, after asking a few straightforward questions about how best to mount, dismount, and position himself during flight, had endured the trip with no apparent anxiety, relaxing into the harness and watching the peaks with those impassive blazing eyes. When the bird completed a quarter pass over the valley, he turned back to Valyn and nodded.

Things had gone less smoothly over on the bird’s opposite talon; Gwenna, irritated to be sharing a perch with Triste, spent half the flight prodding and repositioning the girl, frightening her while failing to make her either safer or more comfortable. It wasn’t Triste’s fault she didn’t know the first thing about the riding of massive birds.

That she’d managed to stay alive, even to help when everything went into the shitter, said something about her resolve, her tenacity, but there were limits. The girl wasn’t Kettral; she was a priestess of the Goddess of Pleasure, and a childhood in Ciena’s temple learning about lutes, dancing, and fine wine had done little to prepare her for the rigors of Kettral travel.

Of course, Valyn reminded himself, I’d look just as uncomfortable if someone demanded that I play the lute. They each had their weaknesses. The difference was, you didn’t die if you screwed up a passage on the lute.

After a while, Gwenna gave up her half-assed attempts to help, abandoning Triste to swing in the cold wind. Valyn looked over, watching the girl huddle into herself, dangling miserably in her harness. She’d exchanged her shredded gown for the too-large uniform of one of the dead Aedolians, and though it hung on her like laundry flapping on a line, the ludicrous clothing did nothing to obscure her raven-dark hair or violet eyes. Next to Triste, the other women in the group looked dull, drab. Not that Gwenna was likely to give a shit about that. Clearly it was the girl’s incompetence she considered unforgivable.

And Valyn didn’t even want to think about what was happening over on the other bird. They were lucky to have the second kettral, the one left behind when they’d killed Sami Yurl’s traitorous Wing—Suant’ra couldn’t have hauled the whole group on her own—but adding another bird forced Talal into a flier’s role, leaving Rampuri Tan and Pyrre to Annick’s dubious tutelage down below. At least Gwenna had bothered to berate Triste about her flying posture; as far as Valyn could make out, the sniper had neglected her charges entirely, her hard eyes fixed on the terrain below, bow half drawn, despite the frigid wind. Fortunately, both Rampuri Tan and Pyrre seemed to have found the knack of hanging in the harness while holding on to the straps above. They hadn’t plummeted to their deaths, at least, which was something.

We’ll be down soon, Valyn reminded himself, squinting at the ground below, trying to figure out the best spot for the drop.

It was clear why this valley, unlike the others, had been able to support human settlement: it was deeper, much deeper. Instead of the rough, V-shaped defiles that gouged the peaks all around, here the sheer granite walls fell away thousands upon thousands of feet, shadowing and sheltering a climate in the gorge below that was green rather than brown and gray, with real trees instead of the isolated and stunted trunks dotting the rest of the mountains. As they dipped below the upper rim, Valyn could feel the warmer, moister air. At the head of the valley, where the glaciers melted, a slender filament of waterfall tumbled over the lip, half hidden behind a veil of spray, shimmering, roiling, and reflecting the light, then splashing into a lake that drained out in a lazy river along the valley floor. Grass flanked the river; not the bunchy, ragged clumps he’d seen in the higher peaks, but real grass, green and even, if not particularly lush.

It was the city itself, however, the drew Valyn’s eye, if city was even the right word. Valyn had never seen anything to compare to it. Stairs chipped from the stone face zigzagged from ledge to ledge, and while some of those ledges looked natural, as though huge shards of stone had simply peeled away, others were too regular, too neat, evidently chiseled out over years or decades. Ranks of rough, rectangular holes pierced the wall— windows into interior chambers. Other, smaller apertures might have served as chimneys or sockets for some lattice of wooden scaffolding long rotted away. It was difficult to gauge the scale, but the highest windows opened out at least a hundred paces above the valley floor, far higher than the tips of the blackpines below. It was a staggering accomplishment. Valyn tried to guess how long such a place would take to build, how many men and women had labored for how many years to hack their mountain home from the rock, but he was a soldier, not an engineer. Decades maybe. Centuries.

It was a beautiful spot. More importantly, you could defend it. The only approach into the gorge was from the east, up the horridly steep broken valley. Fifty men could hold the canyon mouth against an army with little need to do anything more than shove boulders down the scree. The flat land at the base of the cliffs offered plenty of space on which to graze animals and grow crops, and if an army somehow managed to force its way into the gorge, the city itself, adequately provisioned, looked capable of withstanding an indefinite siege. It was a good spot, a safe spot.

So why is it dead?

Rampuri Tan hadn’t told them shit about the place, which was probably a good thing, since Valyn was having trouble believing the little he’d already heard. Evidently, the kenta was down there, somewhere. Evidently Kaden and Tan could use it to travel halfway around the world in a single step. The whole thing sounded ludicrous, but after eight years training with leaches, after seeing what Talal and Balendin could do with their strange powers, after Valyn’s own experience in Hull’s Hole, he was less ready to dismiss Kaden’s story of the gates out of hand. Still, it would have helped to know what the ’Kent-kissing things looked like.

The Providence of Fire UK cover Brian StaveleyValyn had hoped he might get a description of what they were searching for—dimensions, features—but Kaden didn’t seem to know much more about the gates than the Csestriim bit, and all the monk would say was, “You find the city, and I will take us to the kenta.”

“Well, here’s the city,” Valyn muttered, flexing his freezing sword hand to regain some motion while checking over his straps. He flicked a little hand sign at Gwenna: aided dismount, short perimeter check. She nodded impatiently, already loosening Triste’s buckles for the drop. Valyn signaled to Laith with a few tugs on the straps, and the flier banked Suant’ra slightly to bring her down right at the base of the cliff, a few dozen paces from the stairs and windows.

This place had better be dead, Valyn thought, as the cracked stone loomed up beneath him.

The drops went better than he could have hoped. Both monks followed instructions perfectly, as though they’d spent days memorizing them; Triste was almost light enough to catch; and Pyrre, who looked like she was going to bust her head open, tucked into the fall at the last minute and rolled to her feet chuckling. Annick and Gwenna didn’t wait for the others to regain their balance before darting off, blades out, to check the perimeter, one outward into the high grass, the other, after lighting a storm lantern, into the gaping mouth of the city itself.

“As I often say after a night of drinking,” Pyrre remarked, glancing over to where Laith and Talal had landed the birds, “I would have enjoyed that more if we had done less of it.”

“Long flights take a while to get used to,” Valyn replied, careful to hide the fact that he, too, felt stiff and sore from hanging in the harness, windchapped and cold right down in his marrow. The assassin claimed to be on their side, but so far, the people who were supposed to be on their side had proven astoundingly eager to kill them, and Valyn had no desire to reveal more to the woman than he had to. He turned instead to Rampuri Tan.

“Tell me this is the place.”

The monk nodded. “It is farther north than I realized.”

“And this place is what, exactly?” Pyrre asked, tilting her head back to gaze up the looming cliff. “A part of Anthera?”

“I don’t think it’s part of anything,” Kaden replied, turning slowly to take in the crumbling carved façade. “Not anymore.”

Although there was at least an hour of daylight remaining in the high peaks, deep in the valley night was gathering already, and Valyn stared into the growing gloom, trying to fix the surrounding terrain in his mind: the waterfall, the small lake, the narrow river draining out to the east. Eons of rockfall had piled up in places along the cliff base, but a little farther out, stands of blackpine grew densely enough that he couldn’t see more than a hundred paces in any direction.

He turned his attention back to the carved rock. A single entrance like a toothless mouth—the one through which Gwenna had disappeared— provided the only access at ground level, though a row of narrow slits glowered down on them from twenty or thirty feet above: arrow loops, scores of them. Rough carvings flanked the doorway, human shapes so eroded by wind and rain that Valyn could make out little more than the position of the bodies. Perhaps they had been triumphant once, but erosion had so twisted the forms that now they appeared frozen in postures of defeat or death. The remnants of rusted pintles protruded from the stone, but the hinges they once held were gone, as were the doors themselves, presumably rotted away. Whatever the place was, it had clearly been abandoned for a very long time.

Laith was going over Suant’ra, checking her pinions for damage, then the leading edges of her wings. Yurl’s kettral waited a dozen paces off, feathers ruffled against the coming night, watching them all with one black, inscrutable eye. The birds would fly for anyone with the proper training, and in theory she wouldn’t know or care that Valyn and his soldiers had been the ones to destroy Sami Yurl’s Wing. That was the fucking theory, at least. Valyn hoped to Hull it was right.

“A night’s rest will do them good, too,” Laith said, combing through ’Ra’s tailfeathers with his fingers.

Valyn shook his head. “They’re not getting a rest.”

The flier turned. “Excuse me?”

“You have the call-and-command whistles for Yurl’s bird?” Valyn asked.

“Of course. She wouldn’t be much good without them.”

“I want them both in the air,” Valyn said. “Circling. Yurl’s bird can stay low, just above the trees, but I want ’Ra high. If we need to get out quick, we’ll call them.”

Laith shook his head. “She’s tired, Val. They both are.”

“So are we.”

“And we’re going to get some sleep tonight. Even with the thermals in this canyon, it’ll be a strain to fly in circles half the night. The birds aren’t any use to us if they’re half dead.”

“They’re even less use to us completely dead,” Valyn said. “We have to assume someone is following us. Hunting us. Another Kettral Wing, maybe two.”

Why do we have to assume that?”

Valyn stared. “We went rogue. We disobeyed a direct order when we left the Islands. We slaughtered another Kettral Wing.…”

“They tried to murder the Emperor,” Talal pointed out quietly as he approached the group.

“No one knows that but us,” Valyn said. “As far as the Eyrie is concerned, we’re traitors.”

“Unless they’re the traitors,” Laith said grudgingly. “Daveen Shaleel or the Flea or whoever. In which case we’re just as screwed.”

Valyn blew out a slow breath. “I don’t think the Flea’s part of it.”

“You just said you think the bastard is hunting us.”

“I do,” Valyn said, “but I don’t think he’s part of the plot.” He paused, trying to make sure he wasn’t missing anything. “Think it through with me. Yurl and Balendin were bad, they were part of the conspiracy, and Shaleel sent them north.”

“Ah,” Talal said, nodding.

“Ah, what?” Laith demanded, looking from Valyn to the leach and back. “Someone spell it out for the idiot over here.”

“If you were trying to murder the Emperor,” Valyn said, “and you could send Yurl or the Flea, who would you send?”

“Ah,” Laith said. “If the veteran wings were part of the plot, Shaleel would have sent them.” He brightened. “Good news! Whoever’s hunting us is on our side.”

“But they don’t know that,” Valyn pointed out, “and they might fill us full of arrows before we can inform them.”

“Bad news,” Laith said, spreading his hands. “The ups and downs are killing me. Still, if it’s all true, if we really are being stalked by the Kettral, that’s all the more reason to have the birds rested. Listen to me, Valyn. I know kettral. There are only two better fliers than me back on the Islands: Quick Jak and Chi Hoai Mi. Jak failed the Trial and, if you’re right, Chi Hoai’s hunting us, so I’m the best you’ve got and I’m telling you to rest them.”

Valyn frowned into the darkness, trying to imagine he were the Flea. The thought was ludicrous, but he kept at it. “This isn’t a flying question, Laith, it’s a tactics question. If I were them, I’d want to take out our birds first. Ground us. Without wings, we’d be at their mercy. I’m not letting that happen.”

Laith spread his arms wide. “Have you seen the mountains we’ve been flying over? The whole fucking Eyrie could be here flying search grids and odds are no one would find us.”

“I’m not concerned about the whole Eyrie,” Valyn replied, keeping his voice level, “I’m concerned about the Flea. He and his Wing have a reputation, in case you weren’t paying attention back on the Islands, for making a total hash of the odds. Put the birds in the air. One high, one low.”

Laith locked eyes with him, then threw up his hands. “You’re one worried son of a bitch, Valyn hui’Malkeenian.”

“It’s your job to fly,” Valyn replied. “It’s my job to worry.”

The flier snorted. “Here,” he said, tossing something overhand to Valyn. “If you’re going to worry, you may as well have one of the whistles. Yurl’s Wing had two.”

It took Laith a few more minutes to finish checking over the kettral. By the time he’d sent them into the air once more—silent black shapes slicing across the stars—Annick had returned, jogging out from behind a few pines with an arrow nocked to the string of her bow.

“Any company?” Valyn asked.

She shook her head. “No light, no smoke, no refuse or visible waste.”

“It’s not exactly thriving,” he agreed, glancing around once more.

“As I told you,” Tan interjected, “it is dead.”

“I’ll fucking say,” Gwenna added, stepping out of the doorway, lantern held in one hand, a bared short blade in the other.

“Anything inside?” Valyn asked, ignoring the monk. It was all well and good for Rampuri Tan to have his opinions, but Valyn’s carelessness had nearly cost him and his Wing their lives once already. He had no intention of spending any time in a strange city, dead or not, without running through his own protocols.

Gwenna shrugged. “Stuff that doesn’t rot: knives, pots, bracelets. Oh, and bones. A whole shitload of bones.”

“Where?”

“Everywhere. It’s like every poor bastard in the place was slaughtered as they sat down to breakfast.”

Valyn frowned and turned back to the monk. “All right, so we can see for ourselves it’s empty. Where are we? What killed the people who lived here?”

“This is Assare,” Tan replied. “The first human city.”

Gwenna let out a bark that might have been laughter. Valyn started to ask Tan how he knew all this, why the place didn’t appear on any imperial maps, but night was nearly upon them, and they hadn’t moved to any reliable cover. Gwenna and Annick were good scouts, but Valyn wanted the group holed up in a full defensive position before the darkness thickened further. He could see and move well enough in full darkness—in fact, it gave him a distinct advantage—but the other members of his Wing hadn’t reaped quite the same benefit from their own time in Hull’s Hole, and the rest of the party, the ones who weren’t Kettral, would be essentially blind.

“Fine. We can talk about it later. Right now,” he pointed to the cliff face, “we’re going inside and up, someplace in front, with windows; I want to be able to keep eyes on the valley.”

Laith raised an eyebrow, then jerked a thumb at Tan. “This guy says the city’s older than dirt and you want to set up camp in a crumbling cliff? What about something less likely to fall on our heads?”

“I want the high ground,” Valyn replied.

“For what? Hunting rats?”

Valyn bit back a sharp retort. “Yes, for hunting rats. It’s a cliff, Laith. Cliffs don’t just fall over.”

The flier gestured to the scree scattered across the valley floor, some boulders the size of small houses.

“The cliff is sound,” Tan said. “And the kenta is inside.” As if that settled the whole matter.

“That’s what we came for,” Valyn said. “Now move. Light’s wasting and we’re standing out here like geese.”

The Kettral set out at a light jog, while Pyrre and the monks fell in a few steps behind. Valyn had crossed half the distance before he realized that Triste wasn’t following. She still stood in the broad, grassy clearing, staring around, eyes wide as lanterns in the crepuscular light, the toolarge clothes clutched tight about her in one hand.

“Triste,” Valyn called. “Let’s go.”

She seemed not to have heard him, and he turned back, cursing beneath his breath. It was bad enough when his own Wing questioned his decisions—at least they were capable fighters and good tactical thinkers— but if he had to play wet nurse to this girl all the way back to Annur… The thought evaporated as she turned to face him, face baffled, as though lost in the slow depths of dream.

“Triste,” he said, studying her. “Triste.”

Finally she focused on him. Tears welled in her eyes, catching the gold of the fading light.

“Are you all right?” Valyn asked, putting a hand on her elbow.

She nodded, trembling. “Yes. I just… I don’t know. It’s such a sad place.”

“You’re cold. Tired. Let’s get inside.”

She hesitated, then turned toward the ancient city, allowing herself to be led.

 

From the outside, the cliff had appeared solid; the simple façade was chipped and worn, whatever once shuttered the windows long gone to dust, but the angles of the doorframe looked true, the crucial verticals more or less plumb. As they stepped beneath the engraved lintel, however, Valyn could see that here, too, time and decay had worked their quiet violence. Though the city’s bones were bedrock, the chiseling and carving of the builders had allowed in both the wind and the water. Small rivulets spilled over the rock, draining from some impossible height. The water ran cold and clear now, but in the winter it would freeze, and centuries of ice had shattered whole sections of stone, prizing them from the walls and ceiling. A rock the size of a horse blocked part of the passage, while smaller chunks made the footing treacherous.

Valyn pushed deeper into the cave, the smell of damp stone and lichen filling his nostrils. After twenty claustrophobic paces guarded by arrow loops and murder holes, the corridor opened out into a high, wide space— half natural cavern, half carved—evidently an entrance hall of sorts. Recessed sconces for torches grooved the walls, and a wide basin, cracked but graceful, sat in the center. It must have been welcoming once, if not exactly grand, but now it felt empty, cold, and too large to easily defend.

Doorways radiated outward, black rectangles in the lesser gloom, while wide stone stairs rose along the walls on each side. One route looked as likely as the other, and Valyn turned to Tan.

“Which way?”

No one replied.

“You all might enjoy sightseeing,” Valyn went on after a moment, glancing over at the others, “but there are a dozen doors off this hall, and we don’t have the people to guard them or the tools to seal them up. So, if you’re done admiring the architecture…”

“Valyn,” Kaden said finally. “Do you have some sort of light? I can barely see my hand in front of my face in here.”

Valyn almost snapped something impatient about getting up higher before they started worrying about lights, then realized that his brother wasn’t exaggerating. To Valyn’s eyes the room was dim, shadowy, but perfectly navigable. The others, however, were staring as though lost in utter darkness. The slarn, he realized, a chill passing through him as he thought back to the egg’s foul pitch thick in his throat.

“Sure,” he said, shoving aside the memory, sliding his tactical lantern from his pack, kindling it, then holding it aloft. The chamber looked even worse in the flickering light. Plaster had crumbled from the walls and ceiling, littering the ground and exposing the rough faces of the stone beneath. A few paces away, a section of floor had collapsed, yawning into the darkness of a cellar beneath. Evidently the builders had dug down as well as burrowing up, and the discovery that he stood atop a warren of rotten rock, the whole thing undermined with tunnels, did nothing to improve Valyn’s mood.

It’s held together for thousands of years, he told himself. It’ll last another night.

“There,” Tan said, pointing to the stairs on the left.

Valyn glanced at the monk, nodded, slipped one of his short blades from its sheath, and started up.

The stairs climbed gracefully around the perimeter of the entrance hall, and then, as they neared the ceiling, turned away from the room into a high, narrow passage. Valyn slid to the side to let Tan lead, counting the floors as they passed, trying to keep track of which way was out. The place reminded him uncomfortably of Hull’s Hole, and though he didn’t mind the darkness, all the winding back and forth, the rooms opening off to the sides, the branching of the corridors, played tricks with his mind. After a while he lost any sense of which doors led outward and which plunged deeper into the earth. When they reached an open chamber from which new passageways branched in all directions, he paused.

“I hope you know where you’re going, monk,” he said.

Kaden pointed. “Out is that way.”

“How do you know?”

His brother shrugged. “Old monk trick.”

“Tricks make me nervous,” Valyn replied, but Tan had already started down the corridor.

“He is right,” the man said over his shoulder. “And we are close to the kenta.”

As it turned out, the trick worked. After forty paces or so, they emerged from the tunnel onto a huge ledge. Fifty paces above them the cliff wall swept up and out in a smooth wave, a towering natural roof that would keep off the worst of the weather while allowing light and air to fill the space. After the cramped darkness inside the cliff, even the watery moonlight seemed bright, too bright. Valyn crossed to the lip, where the remains of a low wall protected against a fall of sixty or seventy paces. They had climbed above the blackpines, high enough to see out over the entire valley. Valyn watched the moonlight flicker like bright silver coins on the surface of the river below. A gust of wind snatched at him, but he didn’t step back.

“There were benches,” Talal said. The leach had broken off from the group to check the darker corners. “And fountains pouring straight out of the cliff. The masonry is mostly worn away, but the water still flows.”

“They carved channels,” Triste pointed out, “and a pool.”

“Someone had a nice place here,” Laith said, gesturing to a large building that stood at the far end of the ledge.

Unlike the tunnels and rooms through which they had climbed, the structure was built rather than carved, a man-made fortress right on the cliff’s edge. No, Valyn realized, examining the tall windows, the wide, empty door, not a fortress. More like a palace. The building filled half the ledge, stretching up four or five stories to where the roof almost touched the sweeping expanse of granite above.

“Huge house,” the flier added, “and a private garden halfway up the cliff.”

“Where’s the kenta?” Valyn asked, turning in a slow circle, uncertain what he was looking for.

“Inside,” Tan said.

Valyn nodded. “Suits me. Let’s get inside.”

“I thought you wanted a view,” the flier grumbled.

“I want to look,” Valyn said, “not get looked at. The palace has windows. The kenta is there. We set up shop in there.”

Even dilapidated, even crumbling, the inside of the structure lived up to the promise of its setting. Unlike the hoarded warren of low halls and tunnels below, the palace was high-ceilinged, the gracious windows admitting pools of moonlight along with the cool night air. It wasn’t built for fortification, but then, there wasn’t much need for fortification when you were seventy paces up a sheer cliff.

“Up,” Tan said, gesturing to the wide central staircase with its crumbling balustrade.

“I thought we were up,” Laith griped. “There’s such a thing as too much elevation, you know.”

“And this from the Wing’s flier,” Gwenna said.

“What do you suppose this was?” Kaden asked, running a hand along the stone.

Valyn shrugged. “King’s palace. Temple, maybe. Guild hall, if merchants ran the city.”

To his surprise, Triste shook her head. “An orphanage,” she said quietly, so quietly he wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly.

“An orphanage?” Pyrre asked. Ever since landing, the assassin had seemed curious rather than concerned, but her hands didn’t stray far from the pommels of her knives. “I wish the people where I grew up took such good care of their orphans.”

Tan ignored the assassin, turning instead to Triste, his stare boring into her. “How do you know that?”

She glanced at Kaden for support, then pointed back the way they had come, to the doorway opening out onto the ledge. “Above the door. It’s carved there. No one else saw?”

Valyn shook his head. He really didn’t give a shit if the place was a warehouse or a whorehouse as long as it had good sight lines, redundant exits, and enough life left not to collapse abruptly on their heads. Rampuri Tan, however, had fixed the girl with that empty, unreadable stare of his.

“Show me,” he said.

“We’re going up,” Valyn said. “I want our perimeter established before full dark.”

Tan turned to him. “Then establish it. The girl is coming with me.”

Valyn bit off a sharp retort. The monk wasn’t a part of his Wing, not under his command. He could press the issue, but Rampuri Tan didn’t seem the type to respond to pressure, and every minute spent arguing was a minute of further vulnerability. Besides, there was something about the monk, something dangerous in the way he held that strange spear of his, in the flat calm of his stare. Valyn thought he could kill him if it came to blows, but he didn’t see any reason to test the theory.

“All right,” he snapped. “I’ll cover you. Let’s get this done quickly.”

They found the inscription just where Triste said, the words pitted and worn, half obscured by lichen. Valyn squinted at it, trying to make out the lettering before realizing the language was unfamiliar. Linguistic training on the Islands was extensive, but even the characters were alien—sharp and angular, no loops or curves, a script designed to be gouged rather than brushed. He glanced over at Triste, eyebrows raised. “You can read that?”

She was standing in the deep shadow, staring up at the lintel, shivering with the sudden night chill. “I don’t…” She shook her head, then abruptly nodded instead. “I guess.”

“What does it say?” Tan demanded.

She frowned, and for a moment Valyn thought she would admit that the words were foreign after all. Then, haltingly at first, she spoke, her voice oddly lilting and musical. “Ientain, na si-ientanin. Na si-andrellin, eiran.”

The phrases weren’t any more familiar than the shapes graven into the stone, and Valyn glanced over at Tan. The monk’s face, as always, was blank. Spending time around the Shin, Valyn was starting to realize how much he relied on subtle emotional cues. Narrowed eyes, whitened knuckles, tense shoulders—it was all a text he could read, one that signaled belligerence or submission, rage or calm. The monks, however, and Tan in particular, were blank pages, palimpsests scraped and scraped until they were utterly empty, utterly clean.

“What does it mean?” Valyn asked, as much to break the brittle silence as anything else.

Triste frowned, then translated, faltering only briefly. “A home for those who have no home. For those who have no family, love.”

Pyrre had joined them as Triste spoke, and the assassin glanced up at the words with pursed lips. “Would have saved some carving to just write Orphanage. Better yet, Kids.”

“What language is it?” Valyn asked.

Triste hesitated, then shook her head.

“It is Csestriim,” Tan said finally. “More specifically, a dialect of the Csestriim speech used by the early humans.”

Valyn raised an eyebrow. “The priestesses of Ciena learn Csestriim?”

Triste bit her lip. “I’m not… I suppose I did. There were a lot of languages. The men… they come from all over. All over the world.”

“You mean you studied up in case you were called upon to pleasure a Csestriim?” Pyrre asked. “I’m impressed.”

“I wasn’t a leina,” Triste replied. “I wasn’t initiated.…” She trailed off, still staring at the words as though they were vipers.

“All right then,” Valyn said finally, “the language lesson has been fun.” He glanced over the broad swath of stone, and the hair on his arms rose.

Across the ledge, a hundred paces from where he stood, inside the black yawning doorway through which they had first emerged from the cliff: a flicker of motion. No light, no noise, just a silent shape sliding across the darkness, gone so fast he couldn’t even be certain it was real. It could have been anything, a leaf caught in the night breeze, a fragment of cloth flapping. But there is no cloth here, he reminded himself. Gwenna and Annick had said as much. Only the hard things. Only the bones.

There were animals in the Bone Mountains, crag cats, bears, plenty of smaller, less dangerous creatures. Something might have found a convenient lair inside the cliff. Something might have followed them in. In either case, they were vulnerable standing in the entrance to the orphanage, silhouetted by the light of their lantern. Jumping at shadows was a good way to make mistakes, but so was standing around out in the open.

“Upstairs,” he said. “Laith and Gwenna, check the first floors. Talal, Annick, those above. Gwenna, rig the whole place.”

He glanced over his shoulder once more, to where he’d seen the motion. Nothing. The night was still, silent. Valyn turned back to the group. “Now.”

 

Excerpted from The Providence of Fire © Brian Staveley, 2015

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