The Last Mortal Bond: Chapters 6 and 7

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 six and seven one below, or head back to the prologue.

 

 

6

At first, the steady thock, thock, thock of arrows striking wood was comforting. It was familiar, at least, from a thousand memories, long days training on the Islands, pulling bowstrings over and over until

your shoulders ached and your fingers bled. The long warehouse in which they waited, however, was not the Islands. The air was hot and close, so dusty that breathing was difficult. Gwenna had chosen it for tactical reasons—long sight lines and redundant exits, proximity to the water if everything went to shit—but the place was beginning to feel like a trap. A fucking boring trap, but a trap all the same, and the relentless thrumming of the bowstring and thudding of arrows wasn’t helping. Not anymore.

“Annick,” Gwenna growled. “You think you’ve had enough target practice for the day?” She pointed to the arrows lodged in the timber post. “I think it’s dead.”

The sniper drew the bowstring, held it, then looked over. “Is there another way you think we should be spending our time while we wait?”

“What about resting? Maybe even sleeping. We did just break into the Dawn Palace. You’re allowed to take a break, you know.”

Annick watched her a moment more, then let the arrow fly. Before it struck the beam, she had another notched and drawn, and then it was flying. Then another.

Thock, thock, thock.

Like a woodpecker—only woodpeckers weren’t that persistent. And woodpeckers didn’t kill you.

Annick cocked her head to the side, studying her work. The shafts were clustered together, packed into a space the size of an eyeball. A small eyeball. If the performance gave the sniper any pleasure, she didn’t show it.

“Not tired,” she said, then started across the warped floorboards to reclaim her shafts.

Gwenna opened her mouth to respond, then clamped it shut. There was no point arguing with Annick. If she wasn’t tired, she wasn’t tired. Gwenna herself was exhausted. She felt like she’d been exhausted forever, since fleeing the Qirins, at least. The last nine months should have been a rest, of sorts. After the battle of Andt-Kyl, all three of them had been busted up, and bad. One of the Urghul had put half a lance through Annick’s leg. Talal had three broken fingers, three broken ribs, and a fractured scapula—all, presumably, from the final blast that had crippled Balendin. That same blast had sent a chunk of stone into the side of Gwenna’s skull, and another into her leg, fracturing it just above the knee.

They should have been dead, all of them. Those wounds would have killed anyone else. Talal had some theory, though, about how the slarn egg protected them, made them more resilient and faster healing. Gwenna didn’t feel fucking resilient. None of them, in the immediate wake of the battle, could walk more than a quarter mile at a stretch, and Gwenna kept passing out when she moved too quickly. They searched slowly and futilely for Valyn. After a month, there was nothing left to search, not if they didn’t intend to scour every bit of forest south of the Romsdals.

The three of them had found an abandoned cabin southeast of Andt-Kyl, some hunter’s shack or outlaw’s hovel already gone half to seed. They had hunkered down and worked really hard for the next few months on just not dying. That task had proven a good sight harder than any of them expected, and by the end of it—after months trying to lie still in between hacking up blood, of washing and dressing wounds, of living off the mushrooms they could gather within a few paces of the cabin and whatever birds Annick could bring down with her flatbow—the three of them looked more like corpses than warriors.

It meant months of convalescence, the rest of the summer and fall—walking before she could run, floating before she could swim, lifting the fucking swords before there was any point in trying to swing them—before Gwenna felt even half qualified to call herself a Kettral once more. An entire summer and fall gone before they could even contemplate going anywhere or killing anyone. Gwenna had no idea where to go or who to kill, but it seemed like they were going to need to do plenty of both. When they were finally whole enough to travel, the snow was already piled up to the eaves. Covering half a mile took half a day. And so, for another season, they were forced to hunker down, live off of venison stew, and try not to kill one another.

The extra winter months up north weren’t all bad. It meant they were all fully healed before heading south, at least as strong and quick as they had been back on the Islands, wounds that should not have closed at all finally knitted. The disadvantage was that the rest of the world hadn’t been convalescing inside a snowbound cottage for nine months, and when Gwenna, Talal, and Annick finally emerged, they had no idea what the fuck was going on.

Nothing good—that much was clear as soon as they broke free of the northern forests. The Urghul were everywhere, burning shit, killing people, erecting altars to their suffering and their god, generally getting blood on everything. Worse, Balendin was still alive. Gwenna had hoped that somehow, in the chaos and carnage of Andt-Kyl, the traitorous Kettral leach would have taken a blade to the brain. It seemed plausible, at least, given the twin Annurian armies that had swept up the coasts of Scar Lake.

Hope, as usual, proved to be a miserable bitch.

They weren’t even out of the woods before they started hearing reports of an Urghul commander who was not Urghul, a man with dark skin and dark hair, a leach with black eagles perched on either shoulder, a warrior whose thirst for blood outstripped even that of the Urghul. The horsemen called him the Anvil, but it was obviously Balendin. He couldn’t be fought, people whispered. Couldn’t be defeated. He could light whole forests ablaze with a wave of his hand, could snap his fingers and watch the heads of his foes explode.

“We could kill him,” Annick had suggested.

Gwenna had mulled it over. It was tempting, but following your temptations was a good way to get dead.

“No,” she said finally, “we can’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because we don’t have a bird and we don’t have a full Wing.”

“You don’t need a bird or a full Wing to kill a man.”

Talal had shaken his head at that. “He’s not just a man, Annick. His power—it’s self-fulfilling. Everyone across the north is terrified of him, and all that terror just makes him stronger.” His face was sober. “The things he could do back on the Islands, or even in Andt-Kyl… those were nothing.”

“He should be punished,” Annick insisted.

“He will be punished,” Gwenna said, “but since it looks like we’re the ones who are going to have to do the punishing, let’s try to get it right the first time, eh? We need a bird, we need more people, and we need to know what in Hull’s name is going on.”

“Where are we going to get all that?” Annick asked.

“We’re going to start by finding Valyn’s brother and beating some answers out of him,” Gwenna replied. “Which means we’re going to Annur.”

She had steeled herself for an argument, for Annick to demand an attack on Balendin, or for Talal to insist on an immediate return to the Qirins.

Instead, Talal nodded. “All right,” he said quietly. “Annur.”

Annick just shrugged.

It was disconcerting, this deference, unsettling. Gwenna wasn’t the Wing’s commander—with Valyn and Laith dead, there was barely even a Wing left to command—but the other two, for reasons she couldn’t begin to fathom, had started accepting her decisions as though they were orders, as though she weren’t just making it all up as she went along, as though she had some larger, more coherent vision in mind beyond just keeping them alive from one day to the next. Which she most certainly did not.

It didn’t make any sense. Talal and Annick were both better soldiers than Gwenna. Annick was already a legend among the Kettral snipers, and Talal—though he lacked Annick’s obvious, ostentatious skill—had a good military mind and was cool enough to use it, even when the world was burning down around him. Either one of them could have commanded their truncated abortion of a Wing better than Gwenna herself… and yet they didn’t.

Annick might argue some small tactical issue, but mostly she seemed to want to oil her bow and take target practice. Talal would actually say more than two or three words on a given topic, but he seemed to prefer advising to leading. And so Gwenna ended up making the choices, despite the fact that she had no fucking idea what she was doing. The whole situation made her itchy, twitchy, irritable, but what could you do? Someone had to make the ’Kent-kissing decisions.

And so they came to Annur, set up shop inside the warehouse, cased the Dawn Palace, broke into it, then into the Spear, knocked out the Aedolians guarding what was supposed to be Kaden’s personal study, planted the note, and slipped out. The whole thing, as it turned out, was ludicrously, stupidly easy. The problem with having the largest fortress in the world was just that: it was fucking large. There were thousands of men and women inside, maybe ten thousand: bureaucrats to push the papers, masons to fix the walls, gardeners to keep the plants in line, petitioners dumb enough to think anyone in charge actually gave a pickled shit about their fishing rights or rice supplies or guild licenses or whatever. With a minimal amount of planning and improvisation, you could pretty much go anywhere you wanted. With a little more effort, Gwenna felt pretty sure they could have killed Kaden or any of the other members of the council, but she didn’t want to kill him. At least not yet. Not until she had a better sense of what in Hull’s name was going on.

“You think he found the note?” she asked of no one in particular, scanning the dim space of the warehouse as though the answer might be hidden between the dusty crates.

Annick ignored her, probably because Gwenna had asked the question a dozen times already.

“If he hasn’t yet,” Talal replied, “I think he will soon. That monastic training…” He shook his head. “Evidently they can remember everything, remember it perfectly.”

“But do you think he’ll know what it means?”

“I think,” Annick broke in, tugging her arrows from the wooden post, checking the shafts and the fletching one by one, “that there’s nothing we can do about Kaden now. What’s important is focusing on our own readiness in case he does come.”

Gwenna blew out an exasperated breath. “Fuck, Annick. How much more ready do you want to be? I’ve got every door and window rigged, that post you’re shooting at is ready to blow, we’ve packed enough steel into those crates,” she gestured toward the wall, “that Talal should be able to…” She squinted at the leach. “What can you do with that much steel, exactly?”

Talal crossed to one of the wooden crates, set a hand on it as though it were a woodstove he was testing for heat. After a moment he turned, hand still on the crate, narrowed his eyes, and then Annick’s arrows, gathered in her fist like a deadly bouquet, leapt free, aligned themselves into a hovering phalanx, then hung quivering in the air.

The sniper didn’t flinch. “Don’t break them,” she said.

Talal flicked a finger, and the arrows flew the length of the warehouse, burying themselves in the far wooden wall. It was enough to see him burned alive in almost any part of Annur outside the Qirins; enough to see him burned alive, but hardly an overwhelming display of military force.

Gwenna frowned. “Is that it?”

“It’s not as easy as it looks.”

“I’m sure it’s not. But we already have Annick to shoot the arrows. I was hoping you could, I don’t know…”

“Raze entire towns?” Talal suggested. “Build bridges on thin air?”

“Both might come in handy, yes.”

He shook his head. “I’m not Balendin, Gwenna. With a few crates of steel here, I can help, but my well is never going to be the crucial factor in a fight. I’d rather trust to these,” he said, reaching over his shoulder to touch one of his twin blades, then shrugged. “Hopefully we won’t need any of it. There’s no reason for Kaden to distrust us.”

Gwenna snorted. “I’m starting to think that people don’t need reasons. The thing is—”

A low, metallic chime brought her up short. It wasn’t loud, but it didn’t have to be. Ever since she’d rigged the belled line the day before, she’d been waiting for it to ring, listening with one ear even when she was asleep. The fact that it was ringing now meant someone had finally come. She hoped to Hull it was Kaden. She hoped she wouldn’t have to kill him.

She turned toward the other two Kettral, but before she could even start to give the orders, Annick and Talal had flanked the door, slipping silently back between the piled crates to either side, the sniper with her bow half drawn, the leach with one of his short blades naked in his hand. A few steps took Gwenna herself to the wooden post where she had tacked up the ends of the wicks leading to her various munitions. She lit one, a slow-burner, measured the distance to the charges strung up around the doorway—two dozen paces—then walked that same distance, easily outdistancing the hissing fuse.

The bells rang again softly just as she reached the doors. She slid the belt knife from the sheath at her waist, glanced over her shoulder to check on Talal and Annick, flipped open the long iron latch holding the twin doors shut, then stepped back. With an aggrieved shriek, the doors swung ponderously open. A moment later, a hooded figure stepped inside, paused when he saw Gwenna standing just a pace away, smoke steel at the ready, then turned to push the doors shut, latching them in place behind him.

Give it to the fucker, Gwenna thought. He knows how to keep cool.

“Hello, Gwenna,” the figure said, turning back to her, then pushing the hood clear of his face.

It was Kaden. She remembered him well enough from the Bone Mountains, and even if she hadn’t, there was no mistaking those burning eyes. It was Kaden, but the intervening months had changed him. His cheeks were less lean than they had been, his whole frame fuller. It made sense—governing a republic didn’t shave the fat from the bones in the same way as running up and down mountains in the middle of winter. Anyone would get soft after a few months living in Annur.

But he’s not soft, she thought, careful to keep still as she studied him.

Regardless of the extra flesh, there was something about Kaden that looked… pared down. Hardened. Gwenna had known plenty of hard women and men over the years, killers willing and more than willing to lay waste to whole villages if it meant finishing out the mission. Kaden didn’t stand like a fighter, didn’t carry himself with the poise of the Kettral or the Skullsworn, but for all the flame in those Malkeenian eyes, they made her shiver. Not that she could show him that.

“Hello, Kaden.”

“You caused quite a stir in the palace.”

“I thought we were admirably restrained.”

“The Aedolian Guard was convinced that il Tornja had finally sent a legion of assassins.” He shrugged. “So was I.”

“Assassins would have done more killing,” Gwenna said. “Your Aedolian Guard is worse than useless, by the way. You should have them replaced.”

“With whom? Almost every soldier in Annur is in the field already, fighting Adare’s troops, or the Urghul, or the Waist tribes, or trying to keep order in what’s left of the empire. Trying and failing. We don’t have the numbers to spare.”

“You don’t need numbers. One Wing of Kettral would be more useful than all those hundreds of clanking idiots.”

Kaden hesitated. For the first time since stepping into the warehouse, he appeared unsure what to say.

“What?” Gwenna demanded.

“Where’s Valyn?” Kaden turned slowly in place, looking up into the rafters, scanning the haphazardly stacked goods. Gwenna gritted her teeth. She’d known this conversation was coming, but she didn’t have to like it.

“He’s dead.” The words came out wrong, all hard and indifferent, but Kaden was a grown fucking man. He didn’t need the truth spooned out with a helping of honey. “He died trying to kill Ran il Tornja.”

For a few heartbeats, she thought he hadn’t heard her. He kept studying those barrels and crates as though he expected his brother to step out from between them. Or maybe he had heard what she said, but thought the whole thing was some kind of fucked-up trick or test. Gwenna was still trying to come up with something else to say, ideally something that might convince and comfort him at the same time, when he turned back to her, those cold eyes bright as a fire’s heart.

“You’re sure?”

“As sure as you can be with these things. We never found the body, but all of Andt-Kyl was bloody as a butcher’s floor.”

“Then there’s a chance—”

“That’s what I thought,” Gwenna replied, cutting him off roughly. “Until now.”

Kaden watched her in silence. “You think he would have come here,” he said finally.

“I’m certain of it. The only thing I can’t figure is how il Tornja beat him. I understand that the bastard’s a great general, but tactical smarts aren’t the same thing as skill with a sword.”

“He’s not just a general,” Kaden replied.

“What does that mean?”

Kaden exhaled slowly. “There’s a lot that we need to discuss.”

Gwenna glanced at the closed door behind him.

“Are you alone?”

“More or less.”

“I was hoping for yes.”

“But you weren’t expecting it.”

“I’ve learned not to get my hopes up.”

“They have orders to stay outside. To stay out of sight.”

“Orders are wonderful things,” Gwenna replied, stepping past Kaden to throw down the heavy bar over the two doors. “But you’ll forgive me if I back them up with a little bit of steel.”

She studied his reaction as the bar slammed into place. Or rather, she studied his lack of reaction. Most people, even Kettral, would be edgy walking alone into a closed, locked space controlled by trained soldiers of questionable allegiance. It was starting to seem, however, that edgy was a little beyond the scope of Kaden’s emotional register.

He nodded toward the doors. “That bar doesn’t seem like much. Are you sure it’s safe in here?”

Gwenna watched him a moment longer, then turned, sending her knife spinning across the room in an easy overhand toss. It severed the thin, dark fuse that she had laid atop the baseboard of the warehouse.

“Now it is.”

Kaden raised his brows. “What was that about?”

Gwenna just pointed at the fuse. A few heartbeats later, the flame emerged from behind a line of crates, bright as a tiny star, hissing quietly, snaking its way along the cable until it reached the knife, the break. It sputtered for a moment, then went out.

“Munitions,” Kaden observed.

Gwenna just nodded.

“What would have happened if you let it burn?”

“Less talking,” she replied grimly. “More screaming.”

Kaden studied the knife for a moment, then followed the dark line of the fuse to the charges tacked up on the posts to both sides of the door.

“Seems risky.”

Gwenna barked a laugh. “Risky would be not rigging the place. Last time we met everybody got along all right, but that was last time. You’ve made some… unexpected political decisions. I’ve got no way to be sure you don’t have another Kettral Wing getting ready to smash through that door while we chat, do I?”

Kaden turned back to her, face grave. “Where have you been, these past nine months?”

“Around,” Gwenna replied, waving a hand airily.

He stared at her. “You don’t know, do you?”

“Don’t know what?”

“There are no more Kettral, Gwenna. The Eyrie’s wiped out.” The words were like a brick to the face.

“That’s ludicrous. No one would ever go after the Eyrie. Who could destroy an island packed with Kettral?”

Kaden met her stare. “Other Kettral,” he replied grimly. “Your order destroyed itself.”

 *   *   *

“Half the Kettral backed the empire,” Kaden said, spreading his hands. “Half backed the new republic. The whole thing was over in three days.”

The low stone basement of the warehouse in which they had gathered suddenly seemed cramped and stifling, the still air almost too thick to breathe. Annick and Talal stood at the two entrances, both with weapons drawn, but for the moment they both appeared to have forgotten their posts, turning in to stare at Kaden.

Gwenna shook her head. “I don’t believe it. If the Kettral are really gone, then who told you this ’Kent-kissing story in the first place?”

“A few made it out,” Kaden said. “A woman named Daveen Shaleel flew in on a bird a few days after the fight. The creature died a day later, along with one of her Wingmates. Weeks after that, one more soldier showed up. Someone named Gent, all alone in a rowboat. He claimed to have rowed it all the way from the Qirins.”

“Where are they now? Shaleel and Gent?”

“Daveen Shaleel is down in the Waist. We put her in charge of the legions there. According to the reports, she’s about the only thing keeping the entire front from collapsing. Last I heard of Gent, he was on a ship charged with finding and sinking pirates.”

“They were the only two?” Gwenna asked, her voice little more than a whisper.

Kaden met her gaze. “Shaleel said a few others got away. Maybe a bird or two. Scattered. No one knows where they went.”

Gwenna could feel herself staring. The whole Eyrie—destroyed. It seemed impossible. The Islands were the safest place in the world, the only chunk of land that no kingdom or empire would ever dream of attacking. But then, Kaden’s story wasn’t one of kingdoms and empires.

“It makes sense,” Talal said quietly.

Gwenna turned on him.

“It may turn out to be true, but what about this insane story makes sense?”

“Think it through, Gwenna. Put yourself in the shoes of the Wings back on the Islands: you know your foe has the same training as you. You know that, just like you, she has birds. You know that, just like you, she’s got enough weapons and munitions to storm a small city.”

“And she’ll do it,” Annick said, voice flat. “That’s the important point.”

Talal nodded. “You know that she’ll attack you, because it’s exactly what you would do.”

Would,” Gwenna pointed out, “is not the same as will. These are men and women who’ve lived on the same island, fought on the same side their entire lives. If they’d bothered to talk it through for half an afternoon, they could have found a way around it.”

“Talking’s a risk,” Annick said. “If you come to talk, and they come to fight, you lose.”

“I’ll tell you when you lose,” Gwenna spat. “You lose when the entire ’Kent-kissing Eyrie destroys itself.”

“That’s true,” Talal said. “But to talk, you need to trust.” He shook his head. “The Eyrie taught us plenty, but trust wasn’t a big part of the curriculum.”

“Fuck,” Gwenna said, shaking her head, turning her attention back to Kaden. “Fuck.”

If he was bothered by the fate of the Eyrie, it didn’t show.

“Actually,” he said after a moment, “it’s lucky for us.”

Lucky?” Gwenna growled. “How is it lucky, you son of a bitch?”

“I’m sorry for your friends,” Kaden replied, “for the loss of the people you knew, but if il Tornja had the Kettral, if he had them intact and loyal, we’d be finished, dead. There’d be no standing against him.”

“Maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing,” Gwenna retorted. “I’ve got no love for the kenarang, but everything we’ve heard on the march south suggests this republic of yours is even more useless than Adare’s rump of an empire. At least she and il Tornja are holding back the ’Kent-kissing Urghul.”

Kaden frowned. “The Urghul aren’t the only threat. Nor are they the greatest.”

“Spoken by someone who’s never been an Urghul prisoner.” Gwenna stabbed a finger at him across the table. “We all spent weeks in their camp. Long Fist, may Ananshael fuck him bloody, forced Annick and me to take part in their sick little rituals.” She shook her head, unable to speak for a moment, faced with the full folly of Kaden’s idiocy. “Maybe you don’t know this,” she managed finally, “because you’ve been perched atop your throne—”

“The Unhewn Throne is no longer in use,” he said, cutting her off. “And I am not the Emperor any longer.”

“How convenient for you. If you were the Emperor, you’d probably already know that Balendin is with them.” She cocked an eyebrow. “Remember Balendin?”

Kaden nodded. “The emotion leach. The Kettral.”

“Yeah, except he’s not Kettral any longer. The bastard has gone over entirely to the Urghul.”

“We heard something about one of Long Fist’s deputies. A leach. There was no reliable information.”

“Well, here’s some information: Long Fist is a sick, dangerous bastard, and Balendin is at least as bad. He’s only getting more powerful as his legend spreads.…” She waved a hand at Talal. “You explain it.”

Talal studied Kaden a moment. “You know that Balendin is an emotion leach. That he draws his power from the feelings of others, especially feelings directed at him by those physically close to him.”

Kaden nodded again. “I remember our fight in the Bone Mountains.”

“Except in the Bone Mountains there were only a few of us to give him strength,” Talal said grimly. “Now he has hundreds, thousands. His legend grows every day and with that legend grows his strength. If he breaks through the northern front, it will only get worse. By the time he reaches Annur, he will be as powerful as Arim Hua, as powerful as the greatest of the Atmani. Maybe more so.”

“And this,” Gwenna cut in, “is the threat that you think might not be so bad as Ran il Tornja, who, as far as I can fucking tell, is the only one holding these bastards back.”

“I didn’t realize… ,” Kaden began, then fell silent.

There was something new behind those burning eyes, some imperceptible change in the way he held himself. Gwenna tried to pinpoint what she was seeing. Anger? Fear? Before she could put a name to the expression, it was gone.

“So why is it,” she pressed, “that you think your sister and her general are so dangerous?”

“Perhaps they are not,” he admitted quietly. “Not compared to the threat you’ve described.”

Gwenna watched him warily. She was asking him to see past his hatred of the man who had killed his father, past his jealousy of the sister who had stolen his throne. It was no small demand. At best, she had thought, it would take hours to convince him, if such convincing were even possible. Instead, he seemed to have absorbed the new facts in a matter of moments.

“But you’re still determined to carry on this war against Adare,” she said, shaking her head.

“No, in fact.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning that the council has offered her a truce. More than a truce—a treaty. An offer to end all hostilities. She will be reinstalled on the Unhewn Throne with all her titles and honors while the council will retain legislative authority.”

“Meaning you make the laws and she enforces them?”

Kaden nodded.

“It won’t work,” Annick said from the doorway, not bothering to look over her shoulder.

Kaden turned to her. “Why not?”

“Whoever has the power will destroy whoever doesn’t.”

“The treaty divides power between us.”

“Divided power,” Gwenna snorted. “That sounds promising.”

“A moment ago,” Kaden replied, “you were urging me to make peace with Adare and Ran il Tornja.”

“I was hoping for an arrangement that might last more than a week.”

Kaden didn’t respond. Instead, he watched her over the table for what felt like a very long time. Gwenna held his gaze, resisted the impulse to fill the empty space with words. If he could sit with the silence, then so could she.

“Why did you come back here?” he asked finally. “To Annur?”

“To learn what was really happening.” She hesitated, then told him the rest. “And to be sure that Valyn wasn’t here, wasn’t still alive somehow.”

“And now that you know what’s happening,” Kaden asked quietly, “now that you know that Valyn’s dead, what will you do?”

There was no sign that Valyn’s death bothered him.

Gwenna glanced over her shoulder at Annick, met Talal’s gaze for a moment, then turned back to Kaden. “I’ll need to discuss it with the Wing.”

“What if I could furnish you with a ship back to the Islands?”

“The fight’s coming here,” Annick broke in from the doorway. “Not to the Eyrie.”

Kaden nodded. “And it would help us to win that fight if we had birds. Even two or three could make an enormous difference. We could have accurate reports of troop movements, could convey orders from army to army more quickly, could even attempt to get at… Long Fist, or Balendin, without going through the entire Urghul army.”

Gwenna studied his impassive face, then turned away, staring at the swirling dust motes, trying to sift her emotions from her reasoning.

“It makes sense,” Talal said at last. “Any birds that survived the battle will stay on the Islands. They won’t leave their roosts.”

“I could get you a ship,” Kaden added. “Ready to sail on the morning tide.”

Gwenna shook her head angrily. “A ship will take forever, and Annick’s right. The fight is coming here, it is coming now. Why didn’t you send someone nine months ago?”

“We did,” Kaden said, meeting her gaze. “We’ve sent half a dozen expeditions.”

“And?”

“And none of them returned.”

“What happened to them?” Talal asked.

Kaden shook his head. “We have no idea.”

“Let me get this straight,” Gwenna said. “You sent Daveen Shaleel back to the Islands to recover birds and she just fucking disappeared?”

“No. Shaleel wanted to go, but the council refused. She was the highestranking Kettral to survive, to return to Annur. Even without a bird or a full Wing, she’s too valuable to risk.”

“But we’re expendable,” Gwenna said.

Kaden met her gaze. “Yes. You’re expendable.” He raised his brows. “Will you go?”

“Well, shit.” She turned to her Wing. “Talal? Annick?”

“I don’t see that we have any other choice,” the leach replied gravely.

Annick just nodded.

Gwenna studied them both a moment. Once again, it was up to her to make the final ’Kent-kissing choice.

“Fine,” she said finally. “Whatever’s waiting there, it can’t kill us unless we fuck up.”

 

7

Last-Mortal-Bond-UKTwenty paces,” Lehav insisted grimly. “With weapons ready to hand.”

Adare shook her head. “Fifty paces. No swords visible.”

“That’s insane. A mob could kill you a dozen times over before my men got close enough to help.”

“It would have to be a very efficient mob, Lehav. Either that, or you brought a hundred of your slowest men.”

The soldier had pointed out half a dozen times that his new name, the name given to him by the goddess Intarra in a dream, was Vestan Ameredad—the Shield of the Faithful. She continued to use the name he had given her when they first met, both of them in mud up to the ankles, down in Annur’s Perfumed Quarter.

Shielding the faithful was all well and good, but Adare was surrounded by people with new names, new identities, surrounded by lies and lives meticulously tailored to cover the truth and obscure the past. Lehav, at least, she could call by the name his mother had given him when he was still bloody and squirming, before he ever heard of Annur, or Intarra, or Adare herself. A given name was a strange thing to insist on, but it struck Adare as a sort of honesty, and there weren’t so many truths lying around that she could afford to give them up.

He was young, this commander of the Sons of Flame—maybe half a dozen years older than Adare herself—but he had a soldier’s hands and a zealot’s eyes. Adare had watched him whip his men for laxity and blasphemy, had seen him kneeling in prayer in the Aergad snow during the dawn hour and at dusk, had glimpsed him from her tower running his circuits of the walls, breath steaming in the icy air. She remembered their meeting in Olon almost a year earlier, when he had threatened to feed her to the flames. He might be young, but he was harder than most men she had met, and he approached his duty as her guardian with the same cold fervor he brought to the rest of his life.

Now, staring at her, he shook his head. “The five score men you allowed me are my most reliable, but they are five score against the population of an entire city. Your Radiance.”

The honorific still came slowly to the commander of the Sons of Flame. There was no disrespect in the words, but most of the time, as now, they sounded like an afterthought, a title to which he remained more or less indifferent.

It was a good reminder, if Adare needed a reminder, of the complexity of her situation. Il Tornja and the legions fought for her because she was a Malkeenian, the only Malkeenian left who seemed willing to sit the Unhewn Throne. Lehav, however, and all the Sons of Flame, retained their old distrust of the empire. They followed Adare because of what had happened at the Everburning Well, because of the tracery of shining scar laid into her flesh, for the flames in her eyes. It was Intarra’s touch upon her that they trusted. The empire she was working so hard to preserve was incidental at best, disposable.

“Whatever we’ve been doing in Aergad for the past nine months,” Adare went on, “Annur is my city, my capital. I grew up here.”

“So did I,” he replied, “and I learned early not to trust it. Not Annur. Not Annurians.”

“Good,” Adare said, eyes on the city sprawled out to the south. “Your job isn’t to trust people—it’s to keep me safe.”

That, too, was a change. There was a score of Aedolian guardsmen in Aergad, men Fulton had swept up when passing through Annur almost a year earlier. Adare had no cause to fault their devotion or their service, but after Aats-Kyl, they worried her.

According to Valyn, a contingent of Aedolians had come for Kaden, had murdered close to two hundred monks in a failed effort to kill him. Fulton, the Aedolian who had watched over her since childhood, had proven his loyalty a dozen times over, proven it with his death. The others, however, were just so many vaguely familiar faces, a lot of big men in bright armor. Aedolians swore to guard the imperial family, but Adare had not forgotten that it was Ran il Tornja, hundreds of years earlier and wearing a different name, who had founded the Aedolian Guard.

The Sons of Flame, on the other hand, were hers; she had risked everything to make peace with them in Olon, and they had followed her north, first to fight il Tornja, then in a desperate scramble to stop the Urghul. For nearly a year now they had marched beneath her banner, sung their hymns and offered their prayers as they guarded her in camp and castle, bled and died for their goddess of light and for Adare, the woman they believed to be Intarra’s prophet. And so the Sons of Flame had come south, to Annur, while the Aedolians were conscripted into their own unit to fight the Urghul.

The march to Annur had been exhausting, and not just physically. The long miles between Aergad and the capital offered a catalogue of the ways in which Adare had failed her empire. Though it was spring, half the fields they had passed lay fallow—the farmers fled, whether from the Urghul or the threat of banditry, Adare couldn’t say. Three towns they passed had been burned to the ground, and nearly every day they passed bodies, some rotting silently in ditches, some hung from the limbs of blackpines. In most cases, it was impossible to say whether the killings had been crimes or rough justice.

Not that it mattered. Annur was collapsing; and though Adare dreaded her arrival in the capital, dreaded the fate she might face there, with each mile she grew more convinced of the necessity of her return, of the need to try, at least, to heal the horrible rift cleaving her nation. Every body they passed was a spur in her side, every burned farm a reproach urging her to hurry, hurry. Now that they had arrived, it was time to see if she would survive her precipitous return.

“You have a hundred men, Lehav,” Adare said quietly. “Enough to protect me on the road, but not here.”

“If we are closer,” he said, “we can set up a viable cordon—”

She cut him off, laying a hand on his shoulder. “Lehav. If a mob of ten thousand is waiting on those city streets to rend me limb from limb, you can’t stop them. It doesn’t matter how close your men are walking.”

The words were light, but they belied the cramp in her stomach. She had almost forgotten, after nine months’ exile in Aergad, just how big the empire’s capital really was, a sprawl of temples and towers, homes and hovels that spread across half the Neck. You could enter the city in Westgate and walk east along the Godsway for the better part of a morning before reaching the Dawn Palace, red walls sloping down into the lapping waters of the Broken Bay; the north-south avenues were nearly as long.

Of course, it hadn’t always been Annur, not all of it. From where Adare stood in the middle of the Imperial Road she could still make out the older clusters of buildings folded into the hollows. They had been towns of their own once—Hundred Bloom, Jade, Old Cranes and New Crane—each with its own market square and cluster of squat temples, independent, each ruled by a lord or merchant council or mayor before the city of Annur, gorged on its own success, swallowed them up.

Now the land between those old hamlets, land that had been used for crop and pasturage a hundred years earlier, housed a new wave of settlement—rough shacks and taverns tacked up in haphazard neighborhoods that had, over the course of decades, settled into their own illogic, new homes built on the foundations of the old, the roofs of covered markets spanning the space between until all the land south of her and east to the sea’s faint haze was an unbroken façade of human habitation: Annur’s northern face.

Adare could study that face all day long. The trouble was, she couldn’t see anything past it. The flat cropland in which she stood afforded no vantage to look down on the city, to see past the homes of these most recent immigrants, to spy on the heart of the capital. She could see the meager houses shoved one against the next, the flash from the distant towers, the slant and pitch of palace roofs on the slopes of the Graves, copper gone green with verdigris, and then, above it all, stuck like a bright knife in the sky’s wide belly—Intarra’s Spear.

Ruddy afternoon light gleamed on the tower’s glassy walls, reflected and refracted until the entire Spear glowed yellow-orange as though lit from within. Adare craned her neck. The tower’s top, so often lost in cloud or fog off the Broken Bay, was visible today, whittled thin as a needle’s tip by the impossible distance between it and the city sprawled below. Adare had stood atop that needle dozens of times, had stood there to see the ceremonial fires lit for the solstice twice each year, and once, as a small girl, to watch as her father ordered the city burned. It seemed unreal now, as though the tower were not her home but someplace foreign, unimaginably distant, a relic from another land, another life.

Adare turned away from the Spear to confront Lehav once more.

“I trust you,” she said quietly. “I trust your men, and above all I trust in the will of the goddess.”

It wasn’t true, not really, but it was the sort of statement Lehav would usually accept. This time, though, he shook his head.

“There should be no comparison between the trust you place in the goddess and that you have invested in me.” He gestured to the city. “If I stood at your shoulder throughout the entire negotiation I could not guarantee your safety. There are too many variables, too many lines of attack, too many—”

Adare cut him off. “That is exactly the point I am making.”

The words brought him up short.

She tried to soften her voice before continuing. “I don’t need a guarantee, Lehav. We will do, both of us, what we can do, but it is Intarra who will see fit to preserve us, or she will not. I need you to keep the Sons back, mostly out of sight, because when I ride into the city I need the people of Annur to witness an emperor, confident and sure, returning to her home.”

“Emperors have guards. Your father did not ride down the center of the Godsway unattended.”

“My father had the luxury of a stable reign. He was secure on his throne. He could afford to be careless with his image.”

Careless, in truth, was not the best word to ascribe to her father. Sanlitun had been a deliberate, contemplative ruler, even a cautious one. Adare, however, could not afford caution. She’d been out of the city for nearly a year, and not a day of her absence had gone by without the ’Shael-spawned council spreading some sort of vicious rumor about her. Her spies had been reluctant to tell her most of it at first, worrying, not without reason, that even to speak such slanders openly before an emperor might cost them their posts, their lives. Adare, however, had insisted on the unvarnished truth. If she was to serve the people, to rule them, she needed to understand what they thought—and so she heard it all:

She was il Tornja’s whore, the sex-mad puppet of a shrewd general. She was a leach who had used her power to kill Uinian and then, later, to fake a miracle at the Everburning Well. She had murdered Sanlitun herself, luring her father into the Temple of Light to stab him while he prayed. She was bankrolled by Anthera, or the Manjari, or the Federated Cities—the specifics changed with each speaker—bent on the overthrow of Annur, determined to see the empire delivered into the hands of her ancient foes.

The endless lies were exhausting, infuriating. To hear, after nine months defending Annur from the Urghul, that she was an agent bent on Annur’s destruction made her want to scream, to seize someone by the throat and start shaking, to bring half a dozen of the ’Kent-kissing horsemen back to the capital and let them loose in the streets just so the bastards could see the horror that she was working day and night to hold at bay.

Her knuckles ached, and she looked down to find her hands strangling the reins, twisting them until the leather dug into her skin. Slowly, she relaxed her grip. The fault lay with the council, not with the people of Annur. You could hardly blame the city’s shopkeepers and washermen, artisans and builders, for being taken in by the lies of their leaders. They hadn’t been to the north, after all. They didn’t know Adare, couldn’t observe the workings of her mind. Most of them, if they’d ever caught a glimpse of a Malkeenian at all, had seen her in some imperial procession, glimpsed for a moment from behind a writhing mob, through a cordon of guards and soldiers.

She was riding alone now to fix that. To show herself.

She took a long breath, then looked over at Lehav, wondering how much of her agitation he’d noticed. If the man had been watching her, he was looking at the city now. “I don’t want to die,” she said finally. “But we are at war, Lehav. I don’t know the first thing about swords and formations, but I know you cannot win a battle without taking risks. Listen to me when I tell you this, and listen well: we will not survive this battle—not you, not me, not any of the men—if the people of this city do not look at me and see a woman who believes in herself, in her empire, and in them.”

“They are fools,” the man replied. “They have no idea what to believe.”

Adare shook her head bleakly. “My father told me something once. I haven’t forgotten it: If the people are foolish, he said, it is because their leader has failed them.”

 *   *   *

For a long time no one said a word to her. She rode down the center of the bustling street in a shifting eddy of calm. Every person she passed—shopkeeps and carters, street sweepers and grocers—refused to meet her gaze. In a way, it was nothing new. Adare had lived a whole life in which people were uncomfortable around her eyes. Even high ministers and atreps preferred to drift past her without looking, fixing their own eyes elsewhere, moving just a little faster as she approached.

For a long time, this was like that—an entire city refusing to meet her gaze. They followed, though, gathering like birds at a scattering of crumbs, holding back at what seemed a safe distance, whispering, hissing, arguing almost inaudibly, dozens then scores drawn from their day’s affairs by the possibility of celebration or bloodshed.

Let it be celebration, Adare prayed.

It was not.

By the time she reached the Godsway—riding out toward the massive marble statue of Anlatun before turning east—word of her arrival had spread, the cluster trailing her swollen to a crowd. More and more people flooded in from side streets and alleys, skidding to a halt when they finally spotted her, pulling back, falling suddenly silent. Everyone seemed to experience the same shock, as though they hadn’t believed the words of their neighbors—The last Malkeenian. Alone in the city. Riding south. That shock, however, was fading, and the mob was drawing closer.

As she angled down the Godsway, Adare’s heart throbbed behind her ribs. She’d lost sight of Lehav and his Sons. They were out there somewhere, lost in the tide of humanity, close enough to hear her if she screamed, probably, but too far away to do any good. She was starting to question her wisdom in keeping them back, but there was no time for questions. She had returned to Annur. A thousand eyes were upon her. Two thousand. Five. There was no counting them. The voices were getting louder, too, so loud she could barely hear her gelding’s hooves clopping over the enormous flagstones. She fought down the urge to wipe her sweaty palms against her robes, kept her eyes forward, fixed on Intarra’s Spear in the distance.

At least I didn’t bring Sanlitun. The thought calmed her. Whatever happened next, whatever came of the growing mob, her son was hundreds of miles away in Aergad, tucked behind the castle walls with Nira watching over him. He is safe, Adare reminded herself.

Then the first stone struck.

It hit her just above the eye—a hot, white explosion that knocked her halfway off her horse. For a moment, it was all Adare could do to stay upright, to see anything beyond the pain’s brilliant blaze. She managed to keep her saddle either by good luck, divine favor, or sheer force of will. Blood ran down the side of her face in a hot sheet. Her stomach clenched, heaved; she thought she would vomit. Then, when she had fought that down, she realized they were chanting, shouting again and again the same terrible word: Tyrant. Tyrant. Tyrant.

Her horse tried to bolt, but she pulled the reins back tight. If the mob thought she was trying to flee, they would tear her apart. She wanted to cringe, to curl into herself, to cover her bloody face with her arms before someone threw the next stone. Instead, when she’d managed to bring the horse back under control, she let go of the reins and spread her hands slowly, her unarmored body an offering to the crowd. They quieted a moment, and she spoke into that quiet.

“You call me a tyrant. Does a tyrant return alone and unarmed to a city that hates her?”

The words couldn’t have reached more than a dozen paces, but Adare could see the effect on those closest. They looked confused, hesitant, as though suddenly wishing they were farther back, away from the center of whatever storm was about to break. The mob pressed them forward all the same, forcing them, with its sheer weight, to step closer.

Never speak to a crowd. Her father’s words, measured and steady. Especially not a crowd of thousands. Always speak to a single person.

Pain hazing her vision, Adare picked one at random, a gaunt, middle-aged woman carrying a basket on her hip, just one of Annur’s millions dragged along by her own curiosity. Adare clung to that woman’s stare when she spoke again as though it were a post holding her up, a spear to lean on.

“My generals told me to bring an army, but I did not bring an army. My guardsmen urged me to ring myself with their steel; I refused. My councillors implored me to return to Annur in disguise, or in the middle of the night, sneaking through the streets with my eyes hidden, my face obscured.” She raised her chin a fraction. The blood was hot on her face. Her head throbbed. She wondered if she was going to fall out of the saddle after all. “I did not. I will not.”

The next rock grazed her chin. A third stone, smaller than the first two but sharp as a knife, sliced her cheek just below the eye. Her face was awash in blood now. It dripped onto the sleeves of her robe, onto the leather of her saddle. The horse, sensing the rage of the crowd, was starting to shy beneath her once more, snorting heavily and tossing his head, searching for a way out.

The poor beast didn’t understand the truth, couldn’t understand, in the dim workings of his animal mind, that there was no way out. There never had been. Not since Adare fled the Dawn Palace a year earlier. Not since Ran il Tornja put a knife in her father.

And now they’ll kill me, Adare thought. This is where I die, here, on the streets of the city where I was born.

The packed savagery of the mob had grown too heavy. Any moment now, all those bodies would surge forward to collapse the fragile space in which she rode. Another stone would fly, and another, and another, until the blow that finally knocked her from the saddle. Her horse snorted again, on the edge of panic. Adare urged the beast on with her heels—better to die moving forward than standing still. One step. Then another. And to her surprise, the ring of space around her held.

She tried to read some expression in the nearest faces. There was anger, and surprise, and disbelief, twisted lips, narrowed eyes, leveled fingers. A few tried to keep up the chant of tyrant, but most had let it go. They didn’t love her, but their curiosity had overwhelmed, at least for the moment, their fury. It was an opportunity, and Adare seized it.

“I have come,” she said, raising her voice, “to heal the wound in Annur’s heart, to see the damage undone, even if it means my death.”

“Or because the Urghul drove you from the north,” jeered a man a few paces away. Huge, lopsided face. Scraggly beard. Adare met his gaze.

“My armies still hold the northern front—”

Cries of pain and surprise cut her off, the bellowing of soldiers and the pounding of hooves on stone. People turned, baffled, fear’s awful flower blooming within them, and Adare turned with them, searching for the source of the sound. Horror struck through her at the sight of the men on horseback, horror that Lehav had disobeyed his orders, that he had somehow collected the Sons for a desperate charge into the sea of bodies.

As the riders drew closer, however, Adare could see that they were not the Sons of Flame after all. She stared as the mounted men drove into the mob, laying about with clubs and the flats of swords. The armor was wrong for the Sons—all steel, no bronze ornament—and there were too many of them: three hundred, maybe four, more pouring out of the side streets, battering the men and women of Annur, cursing as they worked.

They weren’t trying to kill, that much was clear, but a few pounds of hardswung steel—even the flat of a blade—could finish a man. Adare stared, aghast, as a massive charger reared back, steel-shod hooves flashing in the light, shattering a woman’s skull. The man beside her screamed, a piercing wail of grief and rage as he tried to wrap the woman in his arms, to protect what was obviously past all protection. A cudgel took him in the back of the head, and he fell, still clutching the woman, both bodies disappearing under the trampling boots and the grinding hooves of the horses.

“Stop!” Adare screamed. “Stop this!” Nausea churned in her gut, horror obliterating all pain. “Stop!

It was pointless. The mob, on the edge of murder only moments before, had crumbled, forgetting Adare entirely. All they wanted was escape. Panicked men and women stumbled into her horse, clutched at her legs, scrabbled at her bridle or saddle, tried to lift themselves clear of the violence. One man seized her by the knee, cursing as someone behind him, a boy not much older than ten, tried to shove him aside. Clinging desperately to her saddle’s cantle, Adare thrashed with her trapped leg, flinging the man free, then kicking him in the face with her boot. He screamed, nose smashed, then went down beneath the feet of his fellows. Not dead, but doomed.

People dove into the small streets off the Godsway, cowered in doorways and storefronts, scrambled onto the plinths of the statues to get above the mad, killing press, and all the time the soldiers drove on, sun flashing off arms and polished armor, weapons rising and falling in the day’s late light, over and over and over.

Finally, one soldier, smaller than the others, but closest to Adare, raised his cudgel, pointing at her.

“Here!” he bellowed over his shoulder. “The Malkeenian! We have her!”

It was hardly necessary to shout. It was over, Adare realized, just like that. The Godsway, ablaze with noise only moments before, had gone horribly, utterly quiet. The soldiers were closing in, but Adare barely noticed them. She stared, instead, at the dead.

Dozens of crumpled bodies littered the ground. Some moved, groaning or sobbing with the effort. Most lay still. Here was a dead boy with his arm twisted awfully awry, like a bird’s broken wing. There was a broken woman, her shattered ribs thrusting white and obscene through flesh and cloth alike. Blood pooled everywhere on the wide flagstones.

The short soldier kicked his horse forward through a knot of corpses, men and women who had died holding on to each other, then reined in next to Adare. She thought briefly of running, but there was nowhere to run. Instead, she turned to face the man.

When he pulled off his helm, she saw that he was panting, sweating. Something had opened a gash just at the edge of his scalp, but he paid it no mind. His eyes, bright with the setting sun, were fixed on her.

“Were you so eager to see me dead,” Adare demanded, surprised that her voice did not shake, “that you cut a path through your own people?”

The soldier hesitated, cudgel sagging in his grip. He glanced down at the bodies, then back at Adare.

“See you dead?”

“Or captured,” she replied cooly. “Clapped in irons.”

The man was shaking his head, slowly at first, then more vigorously, bowing in his saddle even as he protested. “No, Your Radiance. You misunderstand. The council sent us.”

“I know the council sent you,” Adare said, a sick horror sloshing in her gut. It was the only explanation.

“As soon as they heard, they sent us, scrambled up as quick as they could. You took a horrible risk, Your Radiance, arriving in the city unannounced. The moment they heard, they sent us.”

Adare stared at him.

I am a fool, Adare thought bleakly, the truth a lash across the face. She was covered in blood, her face hot with it, sticky. She scrubbed a hand over her brow. It came away soaked.

“How badly are you harmed, Your Radiance?” the man asked. He was worried now, on the edge of fear.

Adare studied the blood, bright against her darker palm. She watched it a moment, then looked down at the flagstones, at the bodies strewn there, dozens of them, crushed to death, eyes bulging, limbs twisted in the awful poses of their panic.

I am a fool, and people have died for my folly.

They’d been ready to kill her, of course. Probably would have, if the soldiers hadn’t arrived. It didn’t matter. They were her people. Annurians. Men and women that she had sworn both privately and publicly to protect, and they were dead because she had thought, idiotically, that she could return in triumph to the city of her birth. She had thought she risked only her own life.

So very, very stupid.

“You’re safe now, Your Radiance,” the soldier was saying. He had slung the cudgel from his belt, was bowing low in his saddle once more. The others had arranged themselves in a cordon around her, ten men deep. What foe they expected to hold back, Adare had no idea. “You’re safe with us,” the soldier said again.

Adare shook her head, staring at one corpse splayed out on the ground. It was the woman, the one person in the crowd to whom she had spoken, brown eyes fixed blankly on the sky.

“Safe,” Adare said. She wanted to cry, to puke, to scream, but it would not do for the Emperor of Annur to cry or scream. “Safe,” she said again, more quietly this time, that single syllable rancid on her tongue.

Excerpted from The Last Mortal Bond © Brian Staveley, 2016

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