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

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

 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Adare spent the better part of the morning hunched beneath a bridge, pressed up against the stone pilings, teeth chattering in the brisk spring breeze, limbs trembling beneath her sodden wool robe, hair damp and cold on her nape, despite having wrung it out a dozen times over. She would have dried more quickly in the sun, but she couldn’t leave the shadows until she was dry. A drenched woman wandering the streets would draw attention, and when Fulton and Birch came looking, she didn’t want anyone to remember her passage.

Worse than the cold was the waiting. Every minute she waited was another minute during which the Aedolians could organize their pursuit, pursuit she was ill equipped to handle. How long did wool take to dry? She had no idea. Every morning of her life, a slave had arrived with freshly laundered clothes, and every evening that same slave had removed the dirty garments. For all Adare knew, she could be crouched beneath the bridge all day, shivering, waiting.

She bit her lip. That wasn’t an option. By the time night fell, Aedolians would be scouring both banks of the Chute, searching for exit points, hunting beneath bridges. She needed to be well away by nightfall, by noon, and yet there was no way to wish the cloth dry. Instead, as she trembled and crouched, she tried to think through the next few hours, to anticipate the difficulties in her plan, the flaws.

Difficulties weren’t hard to come by. First, she had to find a route to the Godsway that wouldn’t get her beaten, robbed, or raped. She risked a glimpse out from beneath the bridge. It was impossible to say how far the current had carried her or where, exactly, she’d finally managed to claw her way out of the water, but the leaning tenements, the narrow streets, the stench of offal and rotten food, suggested one of the city’s slums, maybe even the Perfumed Quarter. Somewhere in the near distance she could hear a woman and man shouting at each other, one voice high and biting, the other a ponderous growl of rage. Something heavy smashed into a wall, shattering into pieces, and the voices fell silent. Nearer at hand a dog barked over and over and over.

With numb fingers, Adare slipped the damp blindfold from the pocket of her dress. She tied it in place. In the deep shadow of the bridge she couldn’t see much—her own hand when she waved it in front of her face, sunlight reflecting off the water of the canal before it slid beneath the stone arch, the vague shapes of rotted pilings. She’d known the cloth would hinder her ability to see, but she hadn’t remembered it being quite so bad when she’d practiced in the privacy of her chamber. After fiddling with it for a while, twisting it this way and that, she pulled it off entirely, untied it, then started the whole process over again.

If the blindfold slipped down, she was dead. If it came untied, she was dead. While the shadows of the tenements retreated across the canal she toyed with the cloth over and over until there was nothing left to adjust. It wasn’t great, but she could live with it. Would have to live with it. She tested the wool of her dress with a tentative hand. It was still damp, but not sopping wet. There was a tenuous line between prudence and cowardice, and Adare felt herself edging toward it.

“Get up,” she muttered at herself. “Get out. It’s time.”

The bridge was empty when she emerged from beneath it, and Adare let out a sigh of relief when she realized that the only people in sight were two women twenty paces down the road, one hauling a large bucket, the other bent beneath the weight of a shapeless sack tossed across one shoulder. Even better, in the full light of the sun, she could actually see that they were women through the cloth, though the details were hazy. The Chute had carried her west, which meant the Temple of Light lay somewhere to the north. Adare glanced behind her once more, hesitated, then stepped down from the bridge.

All the streets around the Dawn Palace were paved. Some, like the Godsway, were built of massive limestone flags, each the size of a wagon, every single one replaced every twenty years as wheels and weather pitted the surface. Others were cobbled more simply, with brick or uneven stone, open gutters running on either side. Never, though, had Adare walked a street without any paving at all, without gutters or culverts to siphon away the runoff, and she froze as her foot plunged up past the ankle in mud. She hoped it was only mud, though the stench suggested something more foul.

She yanked her foot free. Then, gritting her teeth, she set out again, stepping gingerly, trying to choose the firmest, highest ground, to avoid the troughs and ruts. It was slow going, but she’d managed to keep her boots on, to make her way steadily in the direction she desperately hoped was north, when laughter from behind made her turn.

“Y’aren’t gettin’ yer boots dirty, are ya?”

While she’d been picking and choosing her steps, hitching her dress up to keep it clear of the mire, two young men had come up behind her, plodding through the muck. They were barefoot, she realized when they drew close enough to see, indifferent to the splashing and splattering along the ragged hems of their pants. One carried a canal hook casually over his shoulder, the other a rough basket. Canal rats, Adare realized.

There was a living to be made—a meager one—loitering on Annur’s bridges, plucking from the current whatever detritus floated beneath. Adare had grown up on children’s tales of Emmiel the Beggar Lord, who dredged a chest of gems from the waters and found himself the richest man in Annur. These two seemed not to have had Emmiel’s luck. The basket was empty, and judging from their gaunt cheeks, it had been empty for a while.

The youth with the hook gestured at her. He had short hair and a pointed weasel’s face. A sly smile. Adare felt her stomach clench.

“I said, y’aren’t gettin’ yer boots dirty, are ya?” He paused, noticing her blindfold for the first time. “What’s wrong with yer eyes?”

The Providence of Fire UK

Had Adare not rehearsed the response a hundred times she would have stood there stupidly, her mouth hanging open. Instead, she managed to mutter, “River blindness.”

“River blindness?” The hook-holder glanced at his companion, a short, pimpled youth with a gourd for a head. Gourd studied her a moment, then spat into the mud.

“River blindness?” the first young man said, turning back to her.

Adare nodded.

He swung the canal hook down from his shoulder, waving it back and forth before her eyes. “Can ya see that?” he demanded. “Whatta ya see?”

“I can see,” Adare replied, “but the light hurts.”

She turned away, hoping they would leave it at that, managed five steps before she felt the hook snag her dress, pulling her up short.

“Hold on, hold on!” the one with the hook said, tugging her back, forcing her to turn. “What kinda boys would we be if we let a nice lady like you get ’er boots dirty? A poor blind lady?”

“I’m not really blind,” Adare said, trying to disentangle the hook from the cloth. “I’m all right.”

“Please,” he insisted, waving his compatriot over. “We’ve no employment t’trouble us for the moment. Let us help you at least as far as Dellen’s Square. The road gets better there.”

“I couldn’t.”

“The basket,” he pressed, gesturing toward the wicker basket. It was wide as her circled arms, large enough to hold almost anything they might haul from the canal, and fitted with heavy wooden handles. “Sit yer ass right there and let Orren and me carry ya.”

Adare hesitated. The two youths frightened her, but then, she was quickly discovering that everything outside the confines of the red walls frightened her: the canal, the narrow streets, the shouts and slamming doors, the people with their hard, defiant eyes. The whole ’Kent-kissing world was turning out to be terrifying, but every Annurian citizen couldn’t be a robber or a rapist. The rich, she reminded herself, did not have a monopoly on decency. She tried to think about the picture she presented: a mud-smeared young woman suffering from a strange sort of blindness, navigating a particularly treacherous street. Maybe they just wanted to help.

“C’mon,” the youth pressed. “Skinny thing like you can’t weigh but a few pounds.”

He gestured to the basket again.

Adare took a deep breath and nodded. Maybe they wanted to help her out of simple kindness, but more likely they were hoping for a few copper suns when they reached the square, something to mitigate their failure at the canals. Palanquins were ubiquitous in the city, and what was the basket but a poor-man’s palanquin? She felt surreptitiously for the purse secreted inside the dress. If they expected coin, she had enough to pay them a thousand times over. Besides, her legs were trembling after the effort of fleeing her guard, swimming the river, then crouching cold beneath the bridge. It would feel good to be carried again, if only a short distance.

“All right,” she said. “Just as far as the square. I appreciate your kindness.”

The youth with the hook winked, gesturing toward the basket once more.

Adare took two steps toward it when a new voice brought her up short.

“Unless I’ve forgotten my geography, this isn’t your turf, Willet. Last time I checked, you worked the streets south of Fink’s Crossing.”

She looked up to find the speaker watching her from the intersection a few paces distant. She couldn’t be sure through the blindfold, but he looked older than the canal rats, maybe ten years older than Adare herself, tall, rangy, and handsome in a rough sort of way. She squinted, eyes adjusting to the shadow. The man’s deep-set eyes, the lines stamped into his forehead beneath his short-cropped hair, made him look worried, even severe. He had a large soldier’s pack on his back, though he wore no obvious uniform, just leather and wool. It was the sword hanging from his hip that drew Adare’s eye.

The youth with the hook paused, then spread his hands. “Lehav. Been a while. We was just doin’ the lady a good turn, carryin’ her to Dellen’s Square.…”

“A good turn,” Lehav replied. “Is that what you call it now?”

Adare hesitated, then backed away from the basket and the soldier both. She had no idea where Fink’s Crossing was, but she understood the talk of geography and turf well enough. She was somewhere she didn’t belong, and the arrival of the soldier, this coded exchange, the way that he looked at her with those hooded eyes, put her even more on edge.

“Just helping,” Willet said, nodding. “Nothing to do with you, Lehav.”

The soldier eyed her for a long moment, looked her up and down as though she were a slave for sale on the blocks, then shrugged again.

“I suppose it’s not,” he said, then turned to the rats. “But remember: if Old Jake finds you working his streets, someone will be using that hook to fish your corpses out of the canal.”

He started to turn, but Adare flung out a hand.

“Wait!”

The soldier paused, glanced back over his shoulder.

She scrambled to think of something to say. “They’re going to rob me.” He nodded. “That’s correct.”

His indifference took her aback. “You have to help me.”

“No,” he said, shaking his head evenly, “I don’t. You’ll be all right— these two will take your coin, but they’ll leave everything else intact.” He glanced over at the rats. “You haven’t turned rapists in the last few years, have you?”

Orren spat into the mud, then spoke for the first time. “No business of yours if we did.”

“No,” Willet said, cutting off his companion, raising his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “ ’Course not, Lehav. We got sisters. Just gonna take the nice lady’s purse and see ’er on ’er way.”

Lehav nodded, turned back to Adare. “You’re lucky. If it were Old Jake’s men found you…” He raised an eyebrow. “Safe to say the result wouldn’t be pretty.”

Adare was shaking now, her breath hot and ragged in her lungs. She felt suddenly trapped, vulnerable, her feet sunk in the mud, dress hitched up around her thighs. Annur had thousands of guardsmen responsible for keeping the peace, for stopping just this sort of thing. The Dawn Palace spent tens of thousands of suns on them each year. You couldn’t stroll fifty paces through the Graves or the High Bluffs without seeing them walking in pairs, armor shining, keeping the Emperor’s peace. But then, this wasn’t the Graves.

“Wait,” she said, glancing desperately at Lehav’s sword. “You’re a soldier. You’re a soldier. From the legions. You swore an oath to protect the citizens of Annur.”

Lehav’s expression hardened. “I’d advise you not to instruct me in the matter of my own oaths. I left the legions years ago. Found a purer cause.”

Adare glanced over her shoulder. Willet had his eyes fixed on Lehav, but Orren was looking straight at her, the gash of his mouth twisted in a cruel smile. The soldier and his callous indifference frightened her, but he, at least, had shown no desire to do her harm. There were no guardsmen on the narrow street, no saviors. If she couldn’t convince Lehav to help her, there would be no help. The man knew the canal rats, but he wasn’t friends with them, that much was clear. If she could only figure out where to drive the wedge. Her mind scrambled, her thoughts numb and clumsy with fear.

“That’s right, Lehav,” Willet was saying. “You don’t wanna be wastin’ your time down here jawin’ with the likes of us. You got outta this shit trap, remember?”

The soldier shook his head. “Sometimes I’m not sure.” He pursed his lips, glanced at the muddy road, the rotting boards facing the buildings, the thin strip of sky. “This whole city is rotten,” he said, more to himself than anyone else. “This whole empire.” After a long pause he shook his head again and turned away. “So long, Willet. Orren.”

Adare’s heart seized. Her tongue felt like leather in her mouth.

Willet smiled a wide grin, obviously relieved. “See ya someday, Lehav.”

“No, you won’t,” the soldier replied.

And then, as when a scattering of individual stones on the ko board resolved themselves into a pattern, Adare understood: a soldier, a “purer cause,” someone who got out, who wasn’t coming back, a man with a sword on his hip but a large pack on his back.

“Please,” she blurted desperately, “in Intarra’s name, I’m begging you.”

Once again Lehav stopped, turned, fixed her with an unreadable stare.

“What is the goddess to you?”

Yes, Adare thought inwardly, relief and triumph flooding her. It wasn’t done yet, but she could see the path.

“She is the light that guides me,” she began, intoning an old prayer, “the fire that warms my face, a spark in the darkness.”

“Is she.” The soldier’s voice was flat.

“I’m a pilgrim,” Adare insisted. “I’m going now, to the Temple of Light, to join the pilgrimage. I’m leaving Annur for Olon.”

Willet shifted uncomfortably at her side. “Don’t worry about it, Lehav.”

The soldier frowned. “I think I might worry about it, in fact.” He turned to Adare once more. “You don’t wear a pilgrim’s robes.”

“Neither do you,” she pointed out. “I’m going to buy them. Today. On the Godsway.”

“She’s lyin’,” Orren snarled. “The bitch is lyin’. She’s got nuthin’. No pack. Nuthin’.”

Now that Adare was into the lie the words tumbled from her lips.

“I couldn’t bring anything, not without my family knowing. I had to sneak out in the night.”

“What are you doing here?” Lehav asked. “In this part of town?”

“I got lost,” Adare sobbed. She didn’t need to simulate the tears. “I was trying to get to the Godsway by dawn, but got lost in the night.”

“Just let ’er go,” Orren growled. “Just keep walkin’.”

The soldier looked up at the narrow strip of sky between the dilapidated buildings as though weary with the whole scene, the rats, the mud, the stench.

Please, Adare begged silently. Her legs shook beneath her as though palsied. She wanted to run, but knew she wouldn’t make it a dozen paces in the mud. Please.

“No,” he replied finally. “I don’t think I will keep walking.” His thumbs remained casually tucked into the straps of his pack. He didn’t so much as look at his sword.

“Might be we’ll kill you, too, then,” Orren said. “Might be we’ll kill you both.”

“It is certainly your right to try.”

Willet’s face had gone white and frightened. He tightened his grip on the hook, shifted back and forth uneasily in the mud while his companion sidled forward, a knife held before him, tongue flicking anxiously between his lips. Lehav unclasped his hands and set one palm silently on the pommel of his sword.

Later, when Adare had a chance to think back on the moment, it would occur to her that it was the simplicity of the gesture, the utter lack of bombast, that decided things. Had he taunted the other two, had he threatened them or warned them away, the scene might have ended differently. The absolute stillness of that hand on the well-worn pommel, however, the total economy of movement, suggested an unwillingness to do anything but fight, kill.

A long moment passed, heartbeat after hammering heartbeat. Then Orren spat into the mud, his thick face twisted with anger and fear.

“Ah, fuck this,” he muttered, shaking his head, turning back toward the bridge.

Willet hesitated a moment, then wheeled to face Adare, shoving her viciously back into the mud.

“Ya miserable cunt,” he snarled. Then, with a glance over his shoulder, he fled in the wake of his companion.

Lehav considered her where she lay sprawled in the mud. He made no move to help her up.

“Thank you,” Adare said, forcing herself to her knees, then hauling herself out of the filth, wiping her hands ineffectually on her dress. “In the name of the goddess, thank you.”

“If you are lying,” the soldier replied, “if you are not a pilgrim, if you have used Intarra’s sacred name for your own advantage, I will take your coin myself and make a special trip on my way out of the city, a trip right back to this very spot, to leave you for Willet and Orren.”

 

Excerpted from The Providence of Fire © Brian Staveley, 2015

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