The Last Mortal Bond: Chapters 4 and 5

The ancient csestriim are back to finish their purge of humanity; armies march against the capital; leaches, solitary beings who draw power from the natural world to fuel their extraordinary abilities, maneuver on all sides to affect the outcome of the war; and capricious gods walk the earth in human guise with agendas of their own.

But the three imperial siblings at the heart of it all—Valyn, Adare, and Kaden—come to understand that even if they survive the holocaust unleashed on their world, there may be no reconciling their conflicting visions of the future.

The trilogy that began with The Emperor’s Blades and continued in The Providence of Fire reaches its epic conclusion, as war engulfs the Annurian Empire in Brian Staveley’s The Last Mortal Bond—available March 15th from Tor Books and March 24th from Tor UK. Read chapters four and five one below, or head back to the prologue.

 

 

4

Nira’s stare might have been hammered out on an anvil.

“Just tell me,” the old woman demanded, “what’s the point a’ havin’ a fuckin’ councillor if ya’re not plannin’ ta listen ta any of her counsel?”

“I listen to your counsel,” Adare replied, trying to keep her voice low, reasonable, patient. She was reminded, suddenly, of her childhood visits to her father’s hunting estate northeast of Annur. While Sanlitun had never been a hunter, he kept a kennel of dogs—some gifts from foreign dignitaries, others whelped on the estate—and Adare liked to visit the dogs in the early morning, before most of the servants and slaves were up and about their business. There was an old red-coat hound bitch, blind in one eye, half lame and wholly vicious, to whom Adare took a perverse liking. She’d bring the aging beast a bone from the kitchen, toss it into the pen, then stand back while the bitch gnawed with the good side of her mouth, eyeing Adare balefully the whole time.

The hound had died more than a decade earlier, but talking to Nira brought back all the old instincts. Like the hound, the woman refused to let something go once she got it in her teeth. Like the hound, she’d snap at any hand that got too close, even the hand that fed her. Like the hound, she’d survived her share of fights, fights that had killed off all her peers.

And unlike the hound, Adare reminded herself grimly, Rishinira is more than a thousand years old, and once helped to destroy half the world.

“I would like to have you in Annur,” Adare said slowly, trying to pry this particular bone from Nira’s mouth without getting bitten, “but I need you here more.” She glanced toward the door of her study. It was closed and latched, but even so, she pitched her voice lower. “I have allies, Nira, but no friends aside from you.”

“Friends, is it?” the woman barked. “Friends!”

Adare ignored the interruption. “Right now you are the only person I really trust, Intarra help me.”

“Which is why, ya dumb cow, ya want me by your side when you trot off to this fool fucking meeting you’re so keen on.”

“No. It’s why I need you here, to keep an eye on il Tornja.”

Nira’s face hardened at the mention of the name. “Eyes are for fools. If all I kept on him was an eye, he’d a’ been gone long months back, disappeared, slipped outta your weak little paws completely.”

“I don’t think so,” Adare said slowly, considering for the hundredth time the events of the past year. “He’s not fighting this war for me, but he’s also not fighting it because you put some invisible leash around his neck. He was here, in the north, weeks before we came. He has his own reasons for going after the Urghul, for going after Long Fist.”

“Oh, I’ll grant him his reasons. Every creature’s got reasons, even a miserable, manipulating bastard like your general. Especially someone like him.” She shook her head. “Sticky thing about his reasons though, is just that: they’re his fucking reasons.” Adare caught a glimpse of brown teeth as the woman smiled. “That’s where the leash comes in.”

“But if you travel with me, if you go farther away, you won’t be able to…”

“Won’t be able ta what?” Nira raised an eyebrow. “You become a leach all of a sudden? Added that ta your long list of shiny titles?”

Adare shook her head, trying to keep her rising anger in check.

“Of course I am not a leach,” she said quietly.

Nira hooted, screwed her wrinkled face into a parody of surprise. “Not a leach? You’re not a leach? Ya mean ya can’t actually twist this shitty world to your will with a half second’s thought?” Before Adare could respond, the woman leaned forward, poked her in the chest with a bony finger. Nira’s levity had vanished. “Then quit tellin’ me what I can and can’t do with my kennings.”

She pulled the finger back, then stabbed it toward the northern bank of windows. “I know where he is, right now. That’s one a’ the things the leash does, ya tit-headed excuse for an emperor. If he decides to ride west tomorrow morning, I’ll know it. If he doubles back, I’ll know it. I’ll know it if I’m here, in this miserable hovel you call a palace, and I’ll know it if I’m hip-deep in the newly smeared shit of some Raaltan farmer’s field.

“And here’s another piece a’ wisdom I could be sellin’ that I’ll just give ta you for free: I can pull that leash tight from wherever I want, too. I could be sunnin’ myself on a slow boat just off the coast of Dombâng, some pretty, naked boy workin’ a nice oil into my aching feet, and if I wanted your general dead I could snap my fingers, feel him die, then roll over to let the oil boy go to work kneading my withered buttocks.

“So when ya say ya need me here to watch il Tornja, you’re either dumber than a poleaxed ox, or you’re lyin’, and I’d be hard-pressed to say which I like less.”

Adare forced herself to count to three after the woman finally fell silent. Then to five. Then to ten.

“Are you quite finished?” she asked finally.

“I am not,” Nira snapped. “There’s Oshi ta consider, too. Even if ya didn’t trust the leash, my brother’s right there with the bastard, doggin’ his every step.”

Adare shook her head. “Oshi’s not there to watch over il Tornja. He’s there in the hope that the kenarang might find a way to cure him, to fix his memory, his madness. He doesn’t even know who il Tornja is anymore.”

Nira snorted. “And the Csestriim bastard best keep it that way. Oshi’d burn him ta ash if he remembered the truth.”

They locked gazes. Adare could remember a time, not so many months earlier, when a tirade like that, delivered with all the woman’s bony conviction, would have shamed and dismayed her. Not anymore. Months spent wrangling with Lehav about the southern force and il Tornja about the northern; months of negotiating with the local merchants’ guilds over grain prices, with aristocrats over taxes, with the endless string of impotent ambassadors from Kaden’s ’Shael-spawned republic, hard-talking idiots who made dozens of promises and twice as many demands without delivering any actual change; months of knowing that a single mistake, a single piece of bad luck, and she would have failed all the people she had sworn to protect; months of listening to her son scream himself to sleep night after night after night—after all those months, she wasn’t as easy to cow as the terrified princess who fled the Dawn Palace a year earlier. And yet, there was nothing to be gained by locking horns with her own Mizran Councillor, especially when the woman was right.

“I did lie,” Adare said. “I want you close to il Tornja, but more than that, I need you here to watch over Sanlitun. To take care of him while I’m gone.”

“Ah,” Nira said, nodding slowly. “So that’s the heart of it. You’ve finally agreed ta part from the child.”

“There’s no other choice,” Adare said, hoping even as she spoke that she might still be wrong. “I have to go to Annur. The legions are undermanned, undersupplied, and exhausted. If I can’t save them, they can’t save Annur, can’t defend the people of Annur, and then what fucking good am I? What’s the point in being Emperor if you let a horde of savages tear apart the people you’re supposed to be protecting?” She shook her head grimly. “That ’Kentkissing council might just want me there so they have an easier time planting a knife between my ribs, but it’s a risk I have to take. I have to take it. My son does not. It’s safer for him here.”

She shivered as she said that word. Safer. As if any place was really safe with an Urghul army pressing down from the northeast, a false council of incompetent, power-grabbing whores holding Annur, the near-utter collapse of the legions in the south, an utter abdication of all peacekeeping within Annur itself, thieves and bandits prowling the land, and pirates pillaging the seas. There was every possibility that in leaving Sanlitun behind, Adare could be leaving him to die far from her arms.…

She forced the thought from her mind.

Aergad’s walls were battered, but they stood. The Haag flowed deep and fast to the east, a final barrier between the city and the Urghul. Beyond the Haag, il Tornja’s legions still fought their desperate battle. There was danger everywhere, but Aergad was still safer than the dubious welcome that awaited her in Annur.

“Look, Adare,” Nira said. For once, the woman kept her mockery and her anger in check. Her voice, too, seemed to have shifted, leaving behind the gutter slang of which she was so fond for something simpler, older, more sober. “You’re smart to leave your boy—for a dozen reasons—but not with me.”

“Yes, with you. You’re my Mizran Councillor.”

“Your councillor, yes. Not your wet nurse. These tits wore out a thousand years ago.”

“I don’t need you to nurse him,” Adare said. “Or to change him or clean him or swaddle him. I have a dozen women who can do that. I just need you to watch over him. To keep him safe.”

Nira opened her mouth as though to reply, then shut it abruptly. To Adare’s shock, tears stood in the old woman’s eyes, glimmering in the lamplight.

She had a child. The realization hit Adare like a fist to the face. In all the time since she first met Nira on the Annurian Godsway, she’d never thought to ask. For half a heartbeat she checked her memory of the histories of the Atmani, but the histories, for all their macabre detail when it came to the decades of war, were silent on the subject of children. As far as Adare knew, Nira had never married, not that that was any impediment to the bearing of children.

“I’m not the one, girl,” the old woman said, the whole weight of the centuries pressing down on her shoulders, voice rough as unsanded wood. “I’m not the one ta be watchin’ over children.”

Adare stared. She had learned to stand up to the woman’s curses and hectoring, but this sudden, quiet honesty left her dumb. “What happened?” she managed finally.

Nira shook her head. Her gnarled hands clutched each other on the table before her. Adare watched, trying to make sense of that awful, mute grief.

“I can’t do it, girl,” the old woman said finally. “Not again. I won’t.”

In just a few words, Adare heard the full scope of her own midnight horror. Since Sanlitun was born she had tried to tell herself that her nightmares and waking terrors, the endless litany of fears for her child, were nothing but the product of an exhausted, overworked mind. He’s healthy, she would remind herself, studying the child’s plump brown cheeks, his strong fingers wrapped around hers. He’s safe, she would whisper, glancing out her window toward the walls of the city. There’s no reason to be afraid.

Over the months since Sanlitun’s birth, Adare had built these feeble walls between herself and the wilderness of awful possibility that lay beyond. She had half convinced herself that through love, and care, and unending vigilance, she could keep all harm from the fat, fretful child, this tiny, inarticulate being that meant more to her than her own heart. The tears in Nira’s eyes, the twist of her hands, her few quiet words—I can’t do it, girl—tore through those walls like a knife through wet paper. A sudden desperation took Adare by the throat, and for several heartbeats she could barely drag the air into her lungs.

“I don’t… ,” she began. Her voice cracked, and she took a deep breath, fixing Nira with her eyes, trying to make the woman see, to understand. “I know it’s not perfect. I know you can’t protect him from everything. But I don’t have anyone else.”

Nira shook her head mutely, and Adare reached across the table, taking the woman’s hands in her own.

“You’re smart,” she said quietly. “You’re strong. And I trust you.”

“They trusted me to rule a whole continent once, girl, and I let it burn. I burned it.”

“We’re not talking about a continent.”

“I know what we’re talking about,” Nira snapped, something like the old querulousness creeping back into her voice. “I had a boy, too. My own boy. I couldn’t save him.”

Adare nodded. She could imagine the horror. She tried not to. “I’m begging you, Nira.”

The woman glared at her through the tears, then pulled her hands away to scrub her eyes. “An emperor doesn’t beg. An emperor commands.”

Adare shook her head. “Not about this.”

Nira turned back to her. “About everything, ya silly slut. That’s what it is to be an emperor.”

“Then you’ll do it?”

“Is it an order?”

Adare nodded silently.

“Then I’ll do it,” Nira said. She blew out a long, ragged breath. “I’ll watch over the sobbing little shit while you’re gone.”

Something inside Adare, some awful tension, went suddenly slack. She felt like she, too, might start weeping.

“Thank you, Nira.”

“An emperor doesn’t thank her subject for following her orders.”

“Well, I’m thanking you anyway.”

Nira shook her head grimly. “Thank me when I put the brat back in your arms and he’s still breathing.”

 

5

Last-Mortal-Bond-UKWith burning lungs and cramping thighs, Kaden forced himself to keep climbing the spiraling wooden stairs. Maut Amut had assured him that the attack on the Spear went no higher than Kaden’s own study, the thirtieth and last of the human floors built into the base of the ancient tower, and yet, after a restless night during which sleep eluded him, he realized he needed to see her, Triste, needed to look at her with his own eyes, to know that she was alive, safe; or safe as he had been able to make her.

It took only a dozen steps from the landing outside his study to climb free of the last of the lower floors, out of the human rooms and corridors and into the impossible, godlike space looming above. The stairs continued, of course, the only human construction in the echoing emptiness of the Spear, a tight wooden spiral at the tower’s center, supported by their own carefully engineered scaffolding, by the wrist-thick steel cables hanging down from the unimaginable heights above. Everything else was air, emptiness, and light, and far, far above, the highest dungeon in the world.

When Kaden was five years old and Valyn six, one of them had discovered The Design of Dungeons. He couldn’t remember how they had stumbled across the old codex, or where, or why they had even bothered to pick it up, but the book itself he remembered almost perfectly, every page, every meticulous diagram, every horrifying story of imprisonment, madness, and torture related in a dry, indifferent, scholarly tone. Yuala the Basc, the author of the treatise, had spent ten years visiting no fewer than eighty-four prisons and dungeons scattered over all fifteen Annurian atrepies and beyond. He had seen the Stone Pit of Uvashi-Rama, the Hot Cells of Freeport, and the infamous Thousand and One Rooms where Antheran kings and queens left their enemies to die. The diversity of the dungeons was nearly endless, but they shared a few common traits—they were underground, dark, and built of stone. On all three counts, the dungeon of the Dawn Palace defied expectation.

Though there were a handful of holding cells beneath the Hall of Justice— small, secure rooms for prisoners awaiting trial or processing—the greatest dungeon of Annur was not some crude, brutal hole hacked out of the bedrock. It was not a hole at all. You could mine a hole, after all, even one of stone. With enough time and the right tools, you could dig your way in or carve your way out. No one, however, in the whole history of the Annurian Empire or, indeed, earlier, had found a way to make the slightest scratch in the ironglass of Intarra’s Spear, and so the builders of the palace prison had chosen Intarra’s Spear for their work.

They didn’t use the entire tower, of course. The whole Spear could have housed a hundred thousand prisoners, an entire nation of spies, traitors, and conquered kings. One floor was sufficient, one floor hundreds and hundreds of feet above the ground, accessible only by this staircase spiraling up through light and silence, suspended from a dizzying apparatus of steel bars and chains.

From a distance, Intarra’s Spear looked impossibly slender, the tower’s girth insufficient to support its height. It seemed that a light breeze would snap the brilliant needle in half, that the clouds scudding against its sides would shatter it. From the inside, however, after climbing free of those first human floors, it was possible to judge the true diameter of the thing. A man with a decent arm might throw a stone from the staircase at the center to one of those clear walls, but it wouldn’t be easy. After the human dimensions of the rooms below, emerging into the huge empty column was intimidating. The staircase spiraling up inside looked fragile, futile, a bold, doomed effort to climb something that was never meant to be climbed.

Kaden counted a thousand steps, then paused on a landing, gathering his breath. The climb was no more brutal than some of the ascents in the Bone Mountains, no harder than running the Circuit of Ravens two or three times after the year’s first snow, but, as Amut had pointed out, he was no longer a Shin acolyte. After nearly a year inside the Dawn Palace, his legs had softened, and the flesh had thickened over his ribs. When he worked hard, as now, his heart labored in his chest, stubborn, baffled at its own inadequacy.

Leaning on the wooden railing, he looked down. Swallows had invaded the space, hundreds of them, roosting in the scaffolding, soaring through the empty tower, their sleek, dark forms darting and twisting in the rich light. Kaden glanced up. A few hundred feet above him, another man-made floor cut across the Spear’s girth, a floor of solid steel supported by great arches of iron and wood that spanned the enormous space. There was no way to carve the glass walls of the tower, no way to drill into them, but the Spear, like the stone cliffs Kaden had spent his years climbing, had its own natural features: shallow cracks and ledges, inexplicable gouges both small and large that might have been worn away by wind and weather. Only there was no weather inside the Spear, no wind.

Whatever the cause of those irregular features, the builders of the dungeon had used them to anchor their structure high inside the tower, nearly two-thirds of the way to the very top, a single floor set atop those arches. Kaden was close enough now to see the blocky forms dangling listlessly beneath—the steel cages of the condemned like ugly pendants hung from heavy chain. He slowed his heart, pushed more blood out into his quivering limbs, and kept climbing.

After a hundred more steps, the staircase wound its way into a metal sheath, like a corkscrew into the neck of a steel bottle. Fruin the First, the dungeon’s architect, had bolted huge plates of steel—each one larger than the bed of a wagon—onto the wooden beams of the stairs, blocking out the light and ruining any possibility of a would-be rescuer throwing a rope—or a vial of poison—to one of the prisoners.

Kaden paused inside the sudden darkness, his robe soaked with sweat, his lungs heaving inside him, to allow his eyes to adjust. Then, with trembling legs, he climbed on, forcing himself to grind out the last three hundred feet in one brutal push. There was no way to know, inside the near-blackness of the stairwell, when he was approaching the level of the dungeon itself. There were stairs beneath his feet, a railing in his hand, and then, abruptly, a landing lit by a lamp. The stairs continued on, twisting up and up, straight through the dungeon into another immeasurably large space and finally to the Spear’s top. Kaden ignored them, turning instead to the two armored guards—jailors rather than Aedolians—flanking a steel door hung from heavy hinges in a steel wall.

“First Speaker,” said the nearer of the two with a low bow.

Kaden nodded in return, glancing past the man at the closed door. It seemed Amut was right—the attackers, whoever they were, hadn’t made an attempt on the dungeon.

“Be welcome,” the guard said, turning from Kaden to the door. It swung silently open on well-oiled hinges.

For all the steps that Kaden had climbed, the admittance chamber to the dungeon of the Dawn Palace might as well have been underground after all, some windowless room in the base of a squat stone fortress. Skylights would have admitted ample light, but Fruin hadn’t allowed skylights into the design of his prison. That left hanging lamps as the only light. Kaden paused as the door thudded shut behind him, considering the room, studying the space for anything different, anything strange. Below the lamps, half a dozen clerks sat at a row of desks, bent over their papers, the scratch of their pens interrupted by a light chime when they dipped those pens into the ink, then tapped the excess free against the glass rims of their inkwells. Kaden took a deep breath, relaxed his shoulders. Here, too, all was calm.

In fact, only the unrelieved steel—the walls, the ceiling, the roughened floor, the three doors leading out of the room—suggested anything other than an ordinary ministerial office. The steel, and the fact that the man sitting beside the far door, sitting at a desk just the same as all the rest, wore full armor.

At the sight of Kaden, he rose quickly to his feet, then bowed.

“You honor us, First Speaker. Your second visit this month, if I am not mistaken.”

“Captain Simit,” Kaden replied slowly, studying the man.

He made a point of carving a saama’an of every guard each time he ascended to the prison, comparing them week to week, searching for some change in the angle of the mouth, the tightness around the eyes, anything that might tell of a betrayal before it came. He had come to trust Captain Haram Simit—one of the three chief jailors—more than most of them. The man looked more like a scholar than a guard—thin-fingered and stooped, a haze of uncut gray hair gathered in a kerchief beneath his helm—but there was a steadiness to him, a deliberation in his actions and his gaze that reminded Kaden of the Shin. Kaden considered his face, comparing it to the various saama’an he had compiled over the previous months. If there was a change, he couldn’t find it.

“You have come to see the young woman?” Simit asked.

He was careful like that—never the leach, or the whore, or even the prisoner—always the young woman.

Kaden nodded. He kept his face still, composed. “Have the Aedolians been up here? Have you been notified of the attack below?”

Simit nodded soberly. “Shortly after the third bell yesterday.” The jailor hesitated. “Perhaps it’s not my place to ask, First Speaker, but what happened?”

“Someone attacked three of Amut’s men. They broke into my study, then disappeared.”

Simit’s face darkened. “Not just inside the Red Walls, but in the Spear itself…” He trailed off, shaking his head grimly. “You should be careful, First Speaker. Annur is not what it was. You should be very careful.”

Despite the warning, relief seeped into Kaden like a cool rain into cloth. She’s still alive, he told himself. Unharmed. Suddenly, standing had become an effort. His legs were slack, whether with that same relief or simple exhaustion, he couldn’t say.

Simit frowned. “I hope you didn’t feel the need to climb all the way up here just to check. I can assure you, First Speaker, that this prison is secure.”

“I believe it,” Kaden said, wiping the sweat from his brow.

Simit watched him for a moment, then gestured to a chair. “Would you care to rest for a moment? The climb is taxing, even for those of us who make it often.”

“You’re the second person who’s told me that in two days.” He shook his head. “If I start sitting I don’t think I’ll get up.”

“Wise,” the jailor said, smiling. “I’ll let the cage-men know that you’re here to see the young woman.”

“Thank you,” Kaden replied.

Simit crossed to a discreet bellpull set into the wall beside the steel door, gave it a dozen tugs, some short, some long, then waited for the cord to twitch in response.

“Different code,” Kaden observed.

The guard smiled. “Most people don’t notice.”

“How often do you change it?”

“Daily.”

“And what would happen if I tried to go through that door without it?”

Simit frowned. “I could not permit that.”

“And what would they do below, at the cages? Let’s say the attackers from my study had come here instead. Let’s say they’d forced their way past you.”

“We have measures in place.”

“Measures?”

The jailor spread his hands helplessly. “I’m not at liberty to say, First Speaker.”

“Even to me?”

“Even to you.”

Kaden nodded. “Good.”

 *   *   *

The main door opened onto a long, dim hall—steel ceiling and floors, steel walls punctuated by steel doors on heavy steel hinges. Kaden’s light slippers were nearly silent on the rough metal, but the guard who had come to escort him—Ulli, a younger man with a blotchy face and lopsided ears—wore heavy boots that rang out at every step, as though the whole floor of the prison were one great gong. Answering clangs and clankings came from deeper inside: other boots, other doors slamming open or shut, chains dragging over rough edges. They had to pause twice for Ulli to unlock heavy gates. The prison was built in different zones, of which Triste occupied the most remote and inaccessible.

“How is she?” Kaden asked as they approached her cell door at last. A small number “1” was etched into the steel.

Ulli shrugged. He was never talkative. Unlike Simit, who understood the formalities of life inside the Dawn Palace, Ulli had all the formality of a sullen innkeeper serving late-night ale to drunkards. Most of the other council members would have bristled at the treatment, but then, most of the others weren’t ever going to climb thousands of stairs to the prison. Kaden found the young man’s indifference a relief.

“Is she still eating?” he pressed.

“If she stopped eating,” Ulli replied, swinging open the door, “then she’d be dead, wouldn’t she?”

“Does she still have the nightmares? Is she still screaming?”

Ulli put his shrug to use once more. “Everyone screams. That’s what happens when you put people in cages.”

Kaden nodded, and stepped into the cell. The first time he had visited, nearly a year earlier, he’d been momentarily shocked to find it empty—no sign of Triste inside the narrow steel box. That, of course, was because Triste wasn’t kept inside her cell. A leach and a murderer warranted an even higher level of security.

Ulli swung the door shut behind them, locked it, then gestured to an hourglass standing on the floor in the corner.

“Gave her the dose of adamanth at the start of the shift. She looked healthy enough then.”

“Healthy enough?”

“No point in me telling you when you’re about to see for yourself.”

Ulli gestured to a chain suspended from the ceiling. A steel bar the length of Kaden’s forearm hung horizontally from the final link in that chain. It looked like a crude swing and served much the same purpose. Kaden crossed to it, took the chain in both hands, seated himself on the bar, then turned to the guard.

“Ready,” he said.

“You want the harness?”

Kaden shook his head. It was foolish, perhaps, always refusing the harness. Sitting on the wide bar wasn’t difficult. No doubt, thousands of children all over the empire gamboled on something similar every day. Those children, however, would be hanging from tree limbs or barn rafters a few feet off the ground. Unlike Kaden, if they slipped, they wouldn’t fall thousands of feet to their deaths.

There was no practical reason to take the risk, but month after month, Kaden insisted on it. Back in the mountains there had been a thousand ways to die—slipping from icy ledges, getting caught out in an early fall blizzard, stumbling across a hungry crag cat. In the council chamber far below, however, danger was something distant and abstract. Kaden worried he was forgetting what it actually meant. Sitting on the slender bar alone, with no harness, was a way of remembering.

The metal doors dropped open. Kaden looked down. He could see the edge of Triste’s cage hanging from its own, much heavier chain, a few dozen feet below and to the right. A hundred feet below that, a pair of swallows turned in a lazy gyre. Below them—just air. Kaden looked back up in time to see Ulli throw the catch on an elaborately geared winch at the corner of the cell. The bar lurched, dropped half a foot, then steadied. Kaden slowed his heartbeat, smoothed out his breathing, forced himself to relax his grip on the chain. And then, with a clanking that sounded like some massive, mechanical thunder, he was lowered out of the prison and into the dazzling bright emptiness of the Spear.

Triste’s cage was not the only one. There were at least two dozen, hanging from their chains like huge, angular, rusting fruit—reserved for the most vile, the most deadly. Each had three solid walls and a fourth of thick steel bars. The cages were staggered, some closer to the floor of the prison above, some hanging much lower, all facing the walls of the Spear. The prisoners could see Annur spread out below—a different portion of the city depending on the orientation of the individual cage—but none could see each other. A few had a clear view of Kaden as he descended. Some cried out or cursed, some stretched imploring hands through the bars, a few just watched with baffled eyes, as though he were some unknown creature lowered down from the skies.

One poor soul had no cage at all. Instead, he sat wide-eyed and gibbering on a narrow platform barely one pace square, a platform supported at each corner by a chain. Simit called it, simply, the Seat. As punishment for defiance, or aggression, or violence, a prisoner was put on it for a week. The men subjected to it fell, went mad, or learned to behave. To Kaden it was a vivid reminder: while the Urghul openly worshipped Meshkent, Annurians had their own ways of paying homage to the god of all suffering.

He shifted his gaze to the cage below him, Triste’s cage, watching it approach as Ulli lowered him. The whole thing—the wrist-thick chains, the heavy steel plates, the bars—looked built to hold some monster out of legend, some unimaginable horror. When Kaden’s seat finally jerked to a halt, however, when he looked across the narrow space separating him from the hanging cell, when his eyes adjusted well enough to see inside, there was only Triste: small, bound, half broken, and even here, in this awful place, almost impossibly beautiful.

For the first month of her imprisonment, she had cowered all the way in the back of the steel box, as far from the bars as she could crawl. During Kaden’s earliest visits, she kept her face turned away, as though the light burned her eyes, flinched each time he spoke, and offered only the same unvarying words: You put me here. You put me here. You put me here.

Had Kaden allowed it, those words would have cut. Despite the massacre in the Jasmine Court, despite the terrible truth of the goddess buried inside her, Kaden couldn’t help thinking of the young woman as an ally, even a friend. Which was one of the reasons he had insisted on this cell. Whatever toll it would take, it kept her safe. Safe from the vicious members of the council, and safe from outside attackers, like whoever had raided his study earlier. He had tried to explain that, but Triste was beyond hearing explanations, so far gone that for months he worried she might die inside the cell despite his precautions, hollowed out by her own despair.

Recently, however, she had stopped huddling. Instead of cringing against the steel floor, she sat cross-legged in the very center of her cage, hands folded in her lap, eyes fixed on the bars before her. Kaden recognized the pose from his years of meditation among the Shin, but where Triste had learned it, or why she had decided to adopt it, he had no idea. She didn’t look like a prisoner; she looked like a queen.

And like a queen, she seemed barely to notice him during his most recent visits. An effect of the adamanth, according to Simit, of so much adamanth administered over so many months. Necessary, if they were to block all access to her well. Today, however, Triste raised her eyes slowly, as though considering Kaden’s dangling, slippered feet, then his chest, and only after a very long time, his face. He tried to read that gaze, to translate the planes and surfaces of the flesh into thought and emotion. As usual, he failed. The Shin were great ones for observing nature, but a life among the monks had given him scant opportunity for the study of humanity.

“I counted ten thousand lights last night,” she said, her voice low and rough, like something almost worn out. “Out there.” She inclined her chin ever so slightly, the gesture intended to encompass, he supposed, the whole of the world beyond the grim ambit of her cage, beyond the clear walls of the Spear. “There were lanterns hung from bamboo poles. Cook fires burning in the kitchens of the rich, in the fish stalls of the markets, on the streets of the Perfumed Quarter. There were fires of sacrifice on the rooftops of a thousand temples, and above those fires there were the stars.”

Kaden shook his head. “Why are you counting lights?”

Triste looked down at her hands, then over at the steel walls of her cage. “It gets harder and harder to believe,” she said quietly.

“What does?”

“That it’s a real world. That each of those fires has someone tending it, cooking or chanting or just warming her hands.” She glanced up toward the sky. “Not the stars, of course. Or maybe the stars. Do you think the stars are on fire?”

“I wouldn’t want to speculate.”

Triste laughed, a limp, helpless sound. “Of course you wouldn’t.”

Though Kaden had come to expect the rambling, disjointed thoughts, Triste’s incoherence still left him struggling to keep up with the conversation. It was like seeing a mind in the slow process of disintegration. As though she were a woman of packed sand thrown into a great, invisible river.

“How are you, Triste?” he asked softly.

She laughed again. “Why ask the question when you don’t care about the answer?”

“I care about the answer.”

For a moment she seemed to look at him, to actually see him. For just a fraction of a heartbeat, her eyes went wide. She started to smile. Then it was gone.

“No,” she said, shaking her head slowly. The exaggerated movement, back and forth, back and forth, reminded him of some half-tamed creature testing the range of a collar and leash. “No, no. No. What you care about is her. Your precious goddess.”

The other cells were dozens of paces away, well out of earshot, but Kaden glanced over his shoulder reflexively. The other prisoners, even if they could hear, weren’t likely to understand the conversation, and if they understood it, weren’t likely to believe that a goddess was trapped inside the young woman imprisoned in a nearby cage. The price of discovery, on the other hand, was disaster. Kaden lowered his voice.

“Ciena is your goddess, Triste. Not mine. That is why she chose you.”

The girl stared at him. “Is that why you keep coming up here? Are you having little chats with her while I’m drugged into oblivion?”

Kaden shook his head. “She hasn’t spoken. Hasn’t… emerged since that time in the Crane, when you put the knife to your stomach.”

For the first time Triste raised a hand, the movement slow, groping, like the searching of some blind creature as she probed the flesh beneath her shift, searching out the old wound.

“I should have finished it then,” she said finally, voice low but hard.

Kaden watched her in silence. It seemed a lifetime ago that Tarik Adiv had arrived on the ledges of Ashk’lan with a hundred Aedolians at his back, with the death of an emperor on his tongue, with Triste. She had been a girl then. She was a girl no longer.

He’d known her barely a year, and in that year there hadn’t been a single day in which she wasn’t running or fighting, lying in a cell or screaming beneath an Ishien knife. Not one day. Kaden’s own struggle had worn him, hardened him, and yet his own struggle had been nothing beside hers. A year of pain and terror could change a person, change her forever. Triste was no longer the wide-eyed daughter of a leina caught up in currents she could neither swim nor escape. That much was obvious. What she had become, however, what the pain and fear had made of her, what she had made of herself… Kaden had no idea.

“If you had continued driving the knife, you would have killed more than yourself and your goddess. You would have severed her touch from this world. You would have killed our capacity for pleasure, for joy.”

“At least, that’s the story your Csestriim tells you,” Triste spat. “The story he tells me.”

Kaden shook his head. “I’ve gone beyond Kiel’s account. Well beyond. The Dawn Palace has the most complete chronicles in the world—both human and Csestriim. I’ve been down in the libraries almost every moment I haven’t been struggling with the council. Kiel’s account fits with what I’ve read, with the histories of the gods and the Csestriim wars.”

“I thought he wanted to kill me,” she said. “It’s the only way to set his goddess free, right?”

“She is your goddess,” Kaden said again.

“Not anymore, she’s not. She stopped being my goddess when she forced her way into my head.”

“She chose you,” Kaden countered, “because of your devotion.”

“That can’t be true. There are scores of leinas in the temple, all of them more adept in Ciena’s arts than I’ll ever be, all of them utterly committed to the service of their goddess.” She grimaced. “I was… a mischance. Some minister’s by-blow.”

“Tarik Adiv had the burning eyes,” Kaden pointed out. “Your father was related, however distantly, to my own. Which means that you, too, are descended from Intarra.”

The notion still surprised him. For hundreds of years the Malkeenians had staked their imperial claim on that lineage, on those eyes, on the claim that there was only one divine family. Forking branches of the tree could lead to civil war, to the ruin of Annur.

Triste shook her head. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“It makes perfect sense,” Kaden replied. “It is the only thing that makes sense. According to the legend, Intarra bore the first Malkeenian millennia ago. The family would have ramified. My branch cannot be the only one.”

“I don’t have the eyes,” she countered.

“Neither does Valyn.”

Triste bared her teeth. “Even if it’s true, what does it mean? What is it worth? What does it have to do with this bitch lodged inside my skull?”

Kaden could only shake his head. Even Kiel’s insights extended only so far. Even the Csestriim, it seemed, could not peer into the minds of the gods.

“We don’t know everything,” he said quietly. “I don’t know everything.”

“But you still want to kill me.”

The words weren’t angry, not anymore. Something had snuffed her anger, quick and sure as a fist clamped over a candle’s flame. She sounded exhausted. Kaden himself felt exhausted, exhausted from the long climb and from the fear that someone had broken into the dungeon, found Triste, hurt her.

“No,” he said quietly, searching for another word, some phrase adequate to convey his worry. The Shin had taught him nothing, unfortunately, of human consolation. If he could have, he would have put a silent hand on her shoulder, but he could not reach through the bars. There was only that single syllable, and so he said it again, helplessly, “No.”

“I’m sorry,” she replied. “I misspoke. You want me to kill myself.”

“The obviate isn’t suicide. There is a ceremony to be observed. A ritual. Without it, the goddess can’t escape. She cannot ascend.” He paused. “And this is not something I want.”

“Cannot ascend,” Triste said, ignoring his last comment. “Cannot ascend.” Her laugh was sudden and bright as a bell. Then gone.

“Why is that funny?”

Triste shook her head, then gestured to the bars of her cage. “It’s a good problem to have. That’s all. Forget about ascending—I’d be happy to get out of this cage for the night.”

For a while they were both silent.

“Has she… spoken to you?” Kaden asked finally.

“How would I know? I never remember the times when she’s in control.” She fixed him with that bright, undeniable gaze. “For all I know, you’re making the whole thing up, everything about the goddess. Maybe I’m just insane.”

“You saw what happened in the Jasmine Court,” Kaden said gravely. “What you did. What Ciena did through you.”

Triste drew a long, shuddering breath, opened her mouth to respond, then shut it and turned away. The memory of the slaughter sat between them— the ravaged bodies, shattered skulls—invisible, immovable.

“I won’t do it,” she said finally. “Your ritual.”

“It isn’t my ritual, and I didn’t come here to ask you to take part in it.”

“But you want me to.” She still didn’t look at him. “You’re hoping—or whatever monks do that’s like hoping—that I’ll accept it, that I’ll embrace it. Well, I won’t. You’ll have to carve her out of me.”

Kaden shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that, as I’ve explained before. The obviate, were we to attempt it, seems to require your consent, your active participation.”

“Well, you can’t have it,” she snarled, turning on him in a sudden fury. “You can’t fucking have it! My mother gave me up to my father, my father gave me up to you. This ’Shael-spawned goddess is inside my skull, she forced her way in without ever even asking me, and now you want to sacrifice me. And you can. Obviously. All of you can give me up, can trade me from one person to the next, pass me along as long as you want.

“You can hit me, and you have. You can hurt me, and you have. You can lock me in one prison or the next”—she waved a hand around her—“and you have. You can give me to Rampuri fucking Tan or to the Ishien or to your council.” She glared at him, the late sun’s light reflected in her eyes. “I’m used to being given up by now. I expect it. But I’ll tell you what I won’t do—I won’t accept it. I won’t play along. For a while, a tiny little while, I thought you were different, Kaden. I thought we might actually…” She broke off, tears in her eyes, shaking her head angrily. When she spoke again, her voice was low, furious. “Everyone trades me away like a stone on the board, but I will not trade away myself.”

Kaden nodded. “I know.”

She stared at him, teeth slightly bared, breath rasping in her throat. “Then why are you here?”

He hesitated, but could think of no reason to skirt the truth. “To check on you. There was an attack.”

She stared. “Here? In the Dawn Palace?”

“In Intarra’s Spear.” He pointed down through the dizzying emptiness toward the human floors thousands of feet below.

“And you needed to tell me?”

“I needed,” Kaden replied carefully, “to see that you were all right.”

Triste looked moved for half a heartbeat, then the expression melted off her face. “To be sure she is all right,” she said again. “You think it was il Tornja, trying to get at the goddess.”

Kaden nodded. “I think it is a possibility.”

She glared at him. “Well, since you asked, I am not all right, Kaden. I haven’t been all right in a very long time.” Her eyes had gone wide, vacant. She wasn’t focusing on him anymore. “I don’t even know what all right would be anymore. We’re all going to die, right? Probably horribly, most of us. Maybe all you can do is die where you want to die, end things on your own terms.”

“Few of us have the luxury to act only on our own terms.” Kaden shook his head. “I do not.”

“But you’re not in here, are you?” Triste said, raising her hands to seize the bars for the first time. “You’re free.”

Kaden watched her silently for a moment. “And what would you do, Triste, if you were free?”

She held his eyes, then seemed to slump, as though collapsing beneath the weight of the very notion of freedom. When she responded, her voice was thin, far away: “I’d go somewhere. Somewhere as far from your ’Kent-kissing palace as possible. There’s a place my mother used to talk about, a little village by an oasis in the shadow of the Ancaz Mountains, just at the edge of the Dead Salts. As far from the rest of the world as you can get, she used to say. I’d go there. That village. That’s where I’d go.…”

It was hard to know how seriously to take the words. Triste’s eyes were unfocused, her speech slightly slurred with the adamanth. She had fixed her gaze over Kaden’s shoulder, as though on something unseen in the distance.

“If I could get you out,” he began slowly, “if I could get you clear of the prison and the palace for a while, somewhere else, would you be willing to consider—”

All at once her attention was there, concentrated furiously on him. “I already told you,” she snarled. “No. Whoever comes to kill me—il Tornja, or Kiel, or you—he’s going to have to do it himself.”

“And the goddess…”

“I hope she fucking feels it when the knife bites.”

 *   *   *

The descent from the prison took Kaden almost as long as the climb. By the time he neared his father’s study, his legs wobbled beneath him and his hands felt twisted into claws from so much clutching of the railing. The simple fact that Triste was alive should have come as a relief, but despite her survival, there was no comfort in the larger picture.

Every visible future was grim. Triste killing herself without performing the obviate, or being killed. Il Tornja’s assassins hacking off her head, or the council throwing her alive onto a pyre with a few self-righteous words about law and justice. In some futures, it was Kaden himself killing her, holding the knife when there was no one else left to hold it. He could feel the girl’s blood hot on his hands, could see her angry, helpless eyes locked on him as he tried to carve the goddess free of her flesh.

He wanted nothing more, when he finally stepped from the luminous emptiness of the Spear into human floors below, than to lock himself inside his study, set aside all emotion, and drift in the vaniate.

Kiel, however, was still in the huge chamber, sitting motionless in the half darkness, pondering the ko board before him, setting the stones on the board slowly—white, then black, white, then black—working through the moves of an ancient contest first played by men or Csestriim centuries dead. Kaden watched in silence for a while, but could make no sense of it.

After a dozen moves, he shook his head, turning away from the incomprehensible game on the ko board, from Kiel’s unwavering gaze. For a moment, he looked at Annur; the city was even more baffling than the game of stones, the very sight of it a reproach. Kaden had survived the attack on Ashk’lan, had survived the kenta and the Dead Heart, had managed to overthrow Tarik Adiv, seize the Dawn Palace, establish the republic, and thwart Adare and il Tornja, and for what? Annur was in shambles, and il Tornja, according to Kiel, had managed to outmaneuver him at every juncture from hundreds of miles away. Kaden blew out a long breath, crossed to the wide wooden table, and flipped idly through the loose parchment stacked there.

Intarra knew that he tried to keep track of it all. To make sense of it. Orders for conscription, new laws intended to curb banditry and piracy, new taxes intended to fund all manner of ill-founded projects in the faltering republic. He read it all, but what did he know about any of it? What did it all—

He paused, finger on a sheet he hadn’t seen before. Just a few lines of inked text. A simple signature. No seal. He shook his head in disbelief.

“What?” Kiel asked.

Kaden stared, reading the words again, and then again.

“What?” Kiel asked again.

“It wasn’t a theft,” he managed finally. “They didn’t break in to take anything.”

The Csestriim raised his brows. “Oh?”

“They broke into my study,” Kaden said, raising the sheet of parchment, “to leave this.”

Excerpted from The Last Mortal Bond © Brian Staveley, 2016

2 Comments

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!