The Bands of Mourning: Chapter Five

With The Alloy of Law and Shadows of Self, Brandon Sanderson surprised readers with a New York Times bestselling spinoff of his Mistborn books, set after the action of the trilogy, in a period corresponding to late 19th-century America.

Now, with The Bands of Mourning—available January 26th from Tor Books—Sanderson continues the story. The Bands of Mourning are the mythical metalminds owned by the Lord Ruler, said to grant anyone who wears them the powers that the Lord Ruler had at his command. Hardly anyone thinks they really exist. A kandra researcher has returned to Elendel with images that seem to depict the Bands, as well as writings in a language that no one can read. Waxillium Ladrian is recruited to travel south to the city of New Seran to investigate. Along the way he discovers hints that point to the true goals of his uncle Edwarn and the shadowy organization known as The Set.

Read chapter five below, or head back to the beginning with chapter one.

 

 

5

Watching the passing scenes, Wax was immediately struck by how populated the land was south of Elendel.

It was easy to forget how many people lived in cities other than the capital. The railway rolled along beside a river wide enough to swallow whole towns up in the Roughs. Villages, towns, and even cities sprinkled the route, so common that the train barely went five minutes without passing another one. Between the towns, orchards stretched into the distance. Fields of wheat bowed and danced. Everything was green and vibrant, refreshed on evenings when the mists came out.

Wax turned from the window and dug into the package Ranette had sent him. Inside, in a fitted, plush-lined case, was a large double-barreled shotgun. Beside it, in their own indentations, were three spheres each wrapped with a thin cord.

The spheres and cords he’d expected. The shotgun was a treat.

Experimenting with extra-powerful loads, a note read, and enormous slugs, for stopping Thugs or full-blooded koloss. Please test. Will require increased weight on your part to fire. Recoil should be exceptional.

Rust and Ruin, the shells for this thing were almost as wide as a man’s wrist. It was like a cannon. He held one up as the train slowed into a station. It wasn’t quite dark yet, but windows in the town were bright with electricity.

Electric lights. He lowered the shell, studying them. The outer cities had electricity?

Of course they do, idiot, he immediately thought to himself. Why wouldn’t they? He’d fallen into the same trap he’d once mocked others for. He’d started to assume that anything important, trendy, or exciting happened inside Elendel. That sort of attitude had annoyed him when he’d lived in the Roughs.

The train yielded a handful of passengers and picked up fewer, which surprised Wax, considering the crowded platform. Were they waiting for another train? He leaned to the side to get a better look out the window. No… the people were clumped together, listening to one of their number shout something Wax couldn’t hear. As he strained to read a sign one of the people carried, someone threw an egg and it splatted right beside his window.

He pulled back. The train started up again, having waited only a fraction of the time it normally did at a stop. As it eased out of the station, more eggs flew toward it. Wax finally got a good look at the sign. End Elendel Oppression!

Oppression? He frowned, leaning as the train turned a bend, letting him watch the crowd of people on the platform. A few hopped onto the tracks and shook fists.

“Steris?” he asked, packing away Ranette’s box. “Have you paid attention to the outer cities situation?”

No reply came. He glanced toward his fiancée, who still sat across the compartment from him, huddled in her seat with a blanket around her shoulders. She didn’t appear to have noticed the stop or the eggs; her face was stuck so far into her book that snapping it closed would have caught her nose.

Landre, the lady’s maid, had gone to ready Steris’s bed, and Wayne was doing who knows what. So the two of them were alone in the room.

“Steris?”

No reply. Wax cocked his head, trying to read the spine and make out what had her so fascinated, but she’d wrapped the volume in a cloth cover. He inched to the side, and saw that her eyes were wide as she read. She turned the page quickly.

Wax frowned, rising and leaning across to get a view of one of the pages. Steris saw him, jumped, and snapped the book closed. “Oh!” she said. “Did you say something?”

“What are you reading?”

“History of New Seran,” Steris said, tucking the book under her arm.

“You looked shocked as you read.”

“Well, I don’t know if you realize it, but the name Seran has a very disturbing history. What did you want to ask me?”

Wax settled back. “I saw a crowd on the train platform. They seemed angry about Elendel.”

“Oh, hum, yes. Let’s see. Outer cities… political situation.” She seemed to need a moment to compose herself. What had she read in that history that was so disconcerting? “Well, I’m not surprised to hear of it. They aren’t happy, for obvious reasons.”

“You mean the taxation issues? They’re that upset?” He looked out the window, but they were too far away now for him to make out the crowd. “We only tax them a little, to maintain infrastructure and government.”

“Well, they would argue that they don’t need our government, as they have their own city administrations. Waxillium, many in the Basin feel that Elendel is trying to act as if our governor were some kind of emperor—something that was supposed to have ended when the Lord Mistborn stepped down after his century of rule.”

“But our taxes don’t pay Governor Aradel,” Wax said. “They pay for things like constables to police the docks and the maintenance of the railway lines.”

“Technically that is correct,” Steris said. “But then all goods are also taxed when they enter Elendel using the very railway lines and rivers we maintain. Have you noticed that there are almost no railway lines traveling directly from city to city outside of Elendel? Other than the interchange at Doriel, everyone wishing to go from one outer city to another must go toward Elendel. Want to ship something from Elmsdel to Rashekin? Have to pass through Elendel. Want to sell metals in Tathingdwel? Have to pass through Elendel.”

“A hub system makes perfect sense,” Wax said.

“And it also lets us tax practically all goods shipped throughout the entire Basin,” Steris said. “By outer cities arguments, that means we’re taxing them twice. First by our levies to maintain the railway lines, then a second time by making them pass everything through us. They’ve lobbied for years to get some direct lines running around the Basin in a loop, and have always been denied.”

“Huh,” Wax said, settling back.

“The rivers are just as bad,” Steris said. “We don’t control where they were placed, of course. But they do all flow toward Elendel, so we control water traffic. There are roadways between towns, but they’re horribly inefficient compared to water or rail travel, so Elendel tariffs basically set prices around the Basin. We can be certain that any goods produced in the city are never undercut, and can provide incentives for things we don’t produce to be sold at a discount in the city.”

Wax nodded slowly. He’d had an inkling, and had heard about the outer cities’ complaints. But he’d always read Elendel broadsheets on the matter; to hear it spelled out so directly by Steris made him marvel at his own shortsightedness.

“I should have paid more attention. Perhaps I should talk to Aradel about this.”

“Well, there are reasons Elendel does as it has.” Steris set her book aside and stood to get down a piece of luggage. Wax eyed the book, noting that she’d marked her page. He reached toward it, but a sudden jerk by the train sent Steris sitting back down with a thump, and she set her suitcase on the book. “Lord Waxillium?”

“Sorry. Continue.”

“Well, the governor and Senate are trying to maintain a single unified nation in the Basin, rather than letting it fracture into a bunch of city-states. They’re using the economics to push the outer cities to accept centralized rule in exchange for lowered tariffs. Even Aradel, as a moderate liberal, has accepted that this is good for the Basin as a whole. Of course, the noble houses don’t care so much about unity as reaping the benefits of a stranglehold on trade.”

“And I assume I’ve benefited from these policies?”

“Benefited?” Steris said. “You practically thrive on them, Lord Waxillium. Your textiles and metalworks would be undercut dramatically without these tariffs. You’ve voted for maintaining them twice and for raising them once.”

“I… have?”

“Well, I have,” Steris said. “You did tell me to see to your house’s interests in voting at—”

“Yes, I know,” Wax said, sighing.

The train rocked on its tracks, rhythmic thumps sounding from below. Wax turned back to the window, but they weren’t passing a town at the moment, and everything was growing dark. No mist tonight.

“Is something wrong, Lord Waxillium?” Steris asked. “Whenever we speak of politics or house finances, you grow distant.”

“It’s because I’m a child sometimes, Steris,” Wax said. “Please, continue your instruction. These are things I need to learn. Don’t let my foolishness discourage you.”

Steris leaned forward and rested her hand on his arm. “These last six months have been difficult. You can be excused for letting your attention toward politics lapse.”

He continued looking out the window. Following Lessie’s first death, he’d lost himself. He’d determined not to react that way again, and had thrown his attention into working with the constables. Anything to keep him occupied, and to prevent him from lapsing into the same melancholy inactivity that had struck him when he’d first lost her.

“I’ve still been a fool. And maybe there’s more. Steris, I’ve never had a mind for politics, even when I was trying to do my duty. It might be beyond me.”

“In our months together, I’ve come to see you as a fiercely intelligent person. The puzzles I’ve seen you solve, the answers I’ve seen you tease out… Why, they’re nothing short of remarkable. You are most certainly capable of caring for your house. Begging your pardon, I’d say it is not your mind, but what you mind, that is the issue.”

Wax smiled, looking toward her. “Steris, you’re a delight. How could anyone ever think you dull?”

“But I am dull.”

“Nonsense.”

“And when I asked you to help me review my list of preparations for the trip?”

That list had been twenty-seven pages long. “I still can’t believe you got all those things into our bags.”

“All of—” Steris blinked. “Lord Waxillium, I didn’t bring all of those things.”

“But you made a list.”

“To think of everything we might need. I feel better when something goes wrong if I’ve contemplated that it might. At least this way, if we run into something we’ve forgotten, I can feel good knowing I figured we might need it.”

“But if you didn’t bring all of that stuff, then what is in all those boxes? I saw Herve struggling to lug a few of them up to the train.”

“Oh,” Steris said, opening the suitcase she’d gotten down. “Why, our house finances, of course.”

Indeed, inside was a large stack of ledgers.

“This trip was unplanned,” Steris explained, “and I have to prepare an accountability report for the banks by next month. House Ladrian has recovered for the most part from your uncle’s spending— but we need to maintain strict books in order to convince lenders we’re solvent, so they will be willing to work with us.”

“We have accountants, Steris,” Wax said.

“Yes, this is their work,” she said. “I need to check it over—you can’t simply turn in someone else’s work without making certain the work was done properly. Besides, they’re off three clips in this quarter’s financials.”

“Three clips?” Wax said. “Out of how much money?”

“Five million.”

“They’re off three hundredths of a boxing,” Wax said, “out of five million. I’d say that’s not bad.”

“Well, it’s within the thresholds the banks demand,” Steris said, “but it’s still sloppy! These financials are how we represent ourselves to the world, Lord Waxillium. If you want to overcome the impression people have of House Ladrian and its indulgences, you must agree that we have a responsibility to present ourselves— You’re doing it again.”

Wax started, sitting up straighter. “Excuse me.”

“Distant look in your eyes,” Steris noted. “Aren’t you the one who is always talking about the responsibility men have to uphold the law?”

“Different thing entirely.”

“But your responsibility to your house—”

“—is why I’m here, Steris,” Wax said. “Why I came back in the first place. I recognize it. I acknowledge it.”

“You just don’t like it.”

“A man doesn’t have to like his duty. He just has to do it.”

She clasped her hands in her lap, studying him. “Here, let me show you something.” She rose, reaching for another suitcase on the rack above her seat.

Wax took her moment of distraction as a chance to slip the book she’d been reading out from its hiding place. He flipped forward to the page she’d marked, curious to discover exactly what about New Seran had captivated her so.

He was completely shocked, then, when the page didn’t contain a historical description, but instead anatomy sketches. Along with long descriptions explaining… human reproduction?

The room grew very still. Wax glanced up to find Steris staring at him with a look of horror on her face. She went beet red and dropped to her seat, covering her face with her hands and groaning loudly.

“Um…” Wax said. “I guess… hm…”

“I think I’m going to throw up,” Steris said.

“I didn’t mean to pry, Steris. You were just acting so odd, and so fascinated by what was in the book—”

She groaned again.

Wax sat, awkward in the shaking train car, searching for words. “So… you don’t have any… experience in these matters, I assume.”

“I keep asking for details,” Steris said, slumping back into her seat and leaning her head back against the wall, looking up at the ceiling. “But nobody will tell me anything. ‘You’ll figure it out,’ they say with a wink and a grin. ‘The body knows what to do.’ But what if mine doesn’t? What if I do it wrong?”

“You could have asked me.”

“Because that wouldn’t be embarrassing,” Steris said, closing her eyes. “I know the basics; I’m not an idiot. But I need to provide an heir. It’s vital. How am I supposed to do this properly if I don’t have any information? I tried to interview some prostitutes about it—”

“Wait. You did?”

“Yes. A trio of very nice young ladies; met them for tea, but they clammed up the moment they discovered who I was—they even got strangely protective, and wouldn’t give me any details either. I get the impression they thought I was cute. What about being a spinster could possibly be cute? Do you realize I’m almost thirty?”

“One foot in the grave, obviously,” Wax said.

“It’s easy to joke when you’re a man,” she snapped. “You’re not on a deadline to provide something useful to this arrangement.”

“You’re worth more than your ability to bear children, Steris.”

“That’s right. There’s my money too.”

“And all I am to this arrangement is a title,” Wax said. “It goes both ways.”

Steris settled back, breathing in and out through her teeth for a few moments. Finally she cracked one eye. “You can shoot things too.”

“What every proper lady needs in a man.”

“Murdering is very traditional. Goes all the way back.”

Wax smiled. “Actually, if you want to be strictly traditional—going back to the Imperial Pair—it was the lady in the relationship who did the murdering.”

“Either way, I apologize for my tirade. It was completely uncalled for. I shall endeavor to be firmer with myself following our union.”

“Don’t be silly,” Wax said. “I like seeing moments like this from you.”

“You like it when ladies are in distress?”

“I like it when you show me something new. It’s good to remember that people have different sides.”

“Well,” she said, taking the book, “I can continue my research at another point. Our wedding has been delayed, after all.”

This was to be the night, he realized. Our first night of marriage. He’d known, of course, but thinking about it made him feel… what? Relieved? Sad? Both?

“If it eases your mind,” Wax said as she tucked the book into her suitcase, “we won’t need to be… involved with any real frequency, particularly once a child is provided. I don’t imagine your research will be necessary for more than a dozen or so occasions.”

As he said it she wilted, shoulders slumping, head bowing. She was still facing away from him, digging in her suitcase, but he spotted it immediately.

Damn. That had been a stupid thing to say, hadn’t it? If Lessie had been here, she’d have stomped on his toe for that one. He felt sick, then cleared his throat. “That was injudicious of me, Steris. I’m sorry.”

“The truth should never be the wrong thing to say, Lord Waxillium,” she said, straightening and looking toward him, composed once again. “This is exactly as our arrangement was to be, as I know full well. I did write the contract.”

Wax crossed the train car, then sat next to her, resting his hand on hers. “I don’t like this talk from you. Or from me. It’s become a habit for us to pretend this relationship is nothing more than titles and money. But Steris, when Lessie died…” He choked off, then took a deep breath before continuing. “Everyone wanted to talk to me. Speak at me. Blather about how they knew what I was feeling. But you just let me weep. Which was what I needed more than anything. Thank you.”

She met his eyes, then squeezed his hand.

“What we are together,” Wax said to her, “and what we make of our future need not be spelled out by a piece of paper.” Or, well, a large stack of them. “The contract need not set our bounds.”

“Pardon. But I thought that was exactly the purpose of a contract. To define and set bounds.”

“And the purpose of life is to push our bounds,” Wax said, “to shatter them, escape them.”

“An odd position,” Steris said, cocking her head, “for a lawman.”

“Not at all,” Wax said. He thought for a moment, then crossed to his side of the chamber again and dug into Ranette’s box, getting out one of the metal spheres wound with a long cord. “Do you recognize this?”

“I noticed you looking at it earlier.”

Wax nodded. “Third version of her hook device, like the one we used to climb ZoBell Tower. Watch.”

He burned steel and Pushed on the sphere. It leaped from his fingers, streaking toward the bar on the luggage rack, trailing the cord behind—which he held in his hand. As the sphere reached the rack, Wax Pushed on a specific thin blue line revealed by his Allomantic senses. It pointed to a latch hidden inside the sphere, like the one inside Vindication that turned off the safety.

A hidden set of hooks deployed from the sphere. He tugged the cord, and was pleased to find that it locked into place, catching on the luggage rack.

Way more handy than the other designs, Wax thought, impressed. He Pushed on the switch a second time, and the mechanism disengaged, retracting the hooks with a snap. The ball fell to the couch beside Steris, and Wax pulled it into his hand by the cord.

“Clever,” Steris said. “And this relates to the conversation how?”

Wax Pushed on the sphere again, but this time didn’t engage the mechanism. Instead he held the cord tight, giving the sphere about three feet of line. It jerked to a stop in midair, hovering. He kept Pushing, upward and away from him at an angle—but also held the cord, and that kept the sphere from falling.

“People,” Wax said, “are like cords, Steris. We snake out, striking this way and that, always looking for something new. That’s human nature, to discover what is hidden. There’s so much we can do, so many places we can go.” He shifted in his seat, changing his center of gravity, which caused the sphere to rotate upward on its tether.

“But if there aren’t any boundaries,” he said, “we’d get tangled up. Imagine a thousand of these cords, zipping through the room. The law is there to keep us from ruining everyone else’s ability to explore. Without law, there’s no freedom. That’s why I am what I am.”

“And the hunt?” Steris asked, genuinely curious. “That doesn’t interest you?”

“Sure it does,” Wax said, smiling. “That’s part of the discovery, part of the search. Find who did it. Find the secrets, the answers.”

There was, of course, another part—the part Miles had forced Wax to admit. There was a certain perverse anger that lawmen directed at those who broke the law, almost a jealousy. How dare these people escape? How dare they go the places nobody else was allowed to?

He let the sphere drop, and Steris picked it up, looking it over with a meticulous eye. “You talk about answers, secrets, and the search. Why is it you hate politics so much?”

“Well, it might be because sitting in a stuffy room and listening to people complain is the opposite of discovery.”

“No!” Steris said. “Every meeting is a mystery, Lord Waxillium. What are their motives? What quiet lies are they telling, and what truths can you discover?” She tossed his sphere back to him, then took her suitcase and set it on the small cocktail table in the center of the cabin. “House finances are the same.”

“House finances,” he said, flatly.

“Yes!” Steris said. She fished in the suitcase, getting out a ledger. “See, look.” She flipped it open and pointed at an account.

He looked at the page, then up at her. Such excitement, he thought. But… ledgers?

“Three clips,” he said. “The tables are different by three clips. I’m sorry, Steris, it’s a meaningless amount. I don’t see—”

“It’s not meaningless,” she said, scooting over to sit beside him. “Don’t you see? The answer is here somewhere, in this book. Aren’t you even curious? The mystery of where they went?” She nodded to him, excited.

“Well, I suppose you could show me how to look,” he said. He dreaded the idea, but then, she looked so happy.

“Here,” she said, handing him a ledger, then fishing out another. “Look at goods received. Compare the dates and the payouts to the ledger! I’m going to study maintenance.”

He glanced toward the window in their door, half expecting Wayne to be out there in the hallway, snickering himself senseless at the prank. But Wayne was not there. This was no prank. Steris grabbed her own ledgers and attacked them with as much ferocity as a hungry man might a good steak.

Wax sighed, sat back, and started looking through the numbers.

Excerpted from The Bands of Mourning © Brandon Sanderson 2016

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