Debut author Jenn Lyons has created one of the funniest, most engrossing new epic fantasy novels of the 21st century in The Ruin of Kings. An eyebrow-raising cross between the intricacy of Brandon Sanderson’s worldbuilding and the snark of Patrick Rothfuss.
Which is why Tor.com is releasing one or two chapters per week, leading all the way up to the book’s release on February 5th, 2019!
Not only that, but our resident Wheel of Time expert Leigh Butler will be reading along and reacting with you. So when you’re done with this week’s chapter, head on over to Reading The Ruin of Kings for some fresh commentary.
Our journey continues….
3: The Black Brotherhood
I’d ask how you could know what I was thinking that night, but… never mind.
My turn? How generous of you, Talon.
Where was I? Ah, yes.
After the auction, I was sick and injured enough, that my new owners reached the sale room first. They waited for me like a trio of judges for the dead in the Land of Peace. They were silent shadows, with robe hoods pulled so far down by all rights they should have been blind.
The figure on the right was female; tall for a western Quuros, but average for most Doltari, or eastern Quuros. The figure on the left was tall—very tall. He or she towered above the others, at least a half-foot taller than the next tallest person (which was me). The center figure, the one who seemed hunched and old, hobbled forward toward my escort, a Kishna-Farrigan eunuch slave master named Dethic. The stooped figure held out its hand, gloved in black silk.
For a moment, no one spoke.
“The gaesh,” the smallest figure demanded.
I startled at the voice, so distorted it didn’t seem real. That voice was the harsh rasp of glacial ice breaking apart mountains, the tossing of waves against sharp rocks.
All things considered, that voice was a bad sign.
Dethic swallowed. “Yes, of course. But… the house rules. You understand. Payment in full before transfer of goods.”
“Yes, I’d like to see this,” Relos Var said as he walked up to the gathering. “I find it unlikely they can pay in full.”
The figure on the left side (the tall one) reached inside its cloak. It removed a necklace from a black velvet pouch and held it up with two fingers. The value of the gold chain paled in comparison to the twelve gems attached. Each diamond was the size of a fingertip, pear shaped and midnight blue with a flaring white star in the center.
I felt even more lightheaded. A necklace of star tears. How many such gems even existed? Twelve star tear diamonds? Of equal size and coloring?
Dethic was stunned. “Star tears! Gods. Those are priceless.”
“So is the boy,” the harsh voice snapped.
“You broke the auction record.” Dethic was giddy thinking of his percentage.
Lord Var said, “Make sure it isn’t counterfeit.”
At this interruption, the figure looked sharply at Lord Var, before it reached up and flipped back the hood from its face.
I should have known from the height: he was vané.
Before this, I had seen damn few vané, all of them flower-colored Kirpis. He was different, resembling a vané who had played in too many fires. His skin was a field of dark ashes, his long hair matte black, his eyes shadowy emeralds. He possessed all the prettiness of the vané race, but was a creature of angles and sharpness. His beauty was that of the razor and not the flower.
I couldn’t guess his age. For all I knew, he’d witnessed the founding of the Quuros Empire. He only looked a few years older than me, but that meant nothing. The vané are an ageless race.
My Quuros ancestors probably needed no more reason than that to hate them, to push the Kirpis vané out of lands we claimed as our own. Confronted by Emperor Kandor’s invading armies, the Kirpis vané had folded, fled their forest homes, and watched in horror as Kirpis became yet another Quuros dominion.
Then again, this was not a Kirpis vané.
To the south of Quur lay the other vané kingdom, the Manol. The Manol vané—dark jewels in contrast to Kirpis’s bright flowers—had not been so easily conquered. Quur’s unstoppable expansion had come to an abrupt and unexpected halt with Emperor Kandor’s death, by Manol vané hands. The fabled Quuros sword Urthaenriel—better known as “Godslayer”—ended up lost somewhere on a jungle floor, along with a generation of Quuros men. Quur would conquer two more dominions through later Emperors, but it never recovered its momentum.
The Manol vané went right on ignoring us after that; we were no threat to them.
“The star tears are real, Relos Var. But you don’t think I’m stupid enough to let you handle them, do you?” The Manol vané raised one eyebrow.
A faint smile played across the wizard’s lips. “One can always hope.”
“You. You check the necklace.” The Manol vané man thrust the necklace and its bag at me.
Dethic looked perplexed. “But sir…”
“It’s all right,” I murmured, not taking my eyes from the black-skinned vané. “I have experience appraising gems.”
I was going to lie about the necklace. I was Quuros; he was Manol vané. Whatever he wanted with me couldn’t be good. The fact that he was paying for me with a necklace of star tear diamonds wasn’t just excessive, it was creepy. I’d heard about that necklace my whole life. To me, those diamonds were as infamous as the sword Urthaenriel or the Crown and Scepter of Quur.
Suddenly, I knew which side to root for: this Relos Var fellow seemed very much the lesser evil. I held the diamond necklace up with shaking fingers, moving the stones back and forth so they caught the light.
“You know your gems? Excellent.” Dethic’s expression turned to a thoughtful frown. “No lying now. Tell me true. Are those star tears?”
I repressed a sigh. It all might have ended right there. I would have lied and told him the stones were fake, taken my chances with Relos Var. But Dethic held my gaesh, held a piece of my soul trapped in the metal charm in his hands. That only meant I had to obey his spoken commands. Like most gaeshed slaves, I followed a slew of orders which were perpetually in effect; I was forbidden to escape, kill my owner, or disobey commands from my owner (although that last seemed redundant). I wasn’t under any obligation to anticipate my owner’s needs or look out for their interests. Loopholes could be exploited.
This whole sordid tale would have crashed to an early end if I hadn’t been ordered to tell the truth.
I looked at the diamonds again. They were flawless, perfect, cut into refracting shapes by ancient, skilled hands. It was as if you stared at a real star, captured and trapped in diamond.
I opened the velvet bag. Everyone heard the necklace hitting the bottom with a clink of chain. No one noticed the copper bangles no longer hung around my wrists.
I am very good at hiding things.
“They’re real.” I handed the bag to Dethic. I scratched at the nape of my neck as far as the shackles allowed. I used that motion to hook the stolen jewels to my own necklace, hiding the mass under my hair.
There. As long as Dethic didn’t discover my deception, I’d just been sold to the Brotherhood for the cost of a few copper bracelets.
It’s not that I don’t think my soul is worth more, but I was damned if I wouldn’t make metal off my own sale.
Lord Var addressed my new owners. “Members of the Brotherhood, we have always had good relations. Don’t jeopardize our friendship over one slave.”
The vané was expressionless as he replied, “You have nothing we want.” He said to Dethic, “You’ve been paid. Hand over the gaesh.”
“Don’t give him the gaesh,” Relos Var ordered.
The Manol vané said, “This is no longer your concern.”
“I want the young man,” Relos Var said.
The vané sneered. “Perhaps you should send courtship gifts first.”
The air simmered between the two men. I wondered if the Black Brotherhood had bought me for no other reason than to keep me out of Relos Var’s hands. That option seemed likely unless they knew who I really was, knew about the Stone of Shackles around my neck.
Unless… That “unless” was all too plausible. My stomach knotted. The last thing I needed was to be the middle of a power play. Gods, more politics. I was sick to death of politics. If only I could leave. I didn’t dare use the word “escape,” even in the quiet of my thoughts. The gaesh would tear me apart for thinking about escape.
Var said, “Do you have any idea with whom you speak?”
The vané smiled. “I used your name, didn’t I?”
“Then you should know better than this insolence.”
The vané shrugged. “He’s not yours and he never will be. Why don’t you go back to looking for Yorish virgins? There must be a fast eight-year-old somewhere in the mountains who’s escaped the attention of your minions.”
A sound like granite rocks being scraped against one another issued from the cowled robe of the smallest Brotherhood member: he or she or it was laughing.
Dethic reached forward, hesitantly, holding the hawk medallion containing a piece of my soul in his hand. Both men facing him stared at the pendant as if either one would grab it away from the slave-trader, sale or no sale.
“You’ve made a serious mistake, young vané,” Relos Var cautioned. “I’ll remember you.”
The vané grinned, sharp and feral. “Not ‘young vané,’ please. Mortal enemies should be on a first-name basis.”
“That’s what you think you are? My mortal enemy? Suckling at Thaena’s teats has made you so hungry for a short, ugly death?” Relos Var seemed to find that thought amusing. “What is your name then?”
“Teraeth.” The vané’s eyes glowed , mocking satisfaction played across his features. I didn’t know why the vané hated this man so much, but he was emphatic. I started to back away, not to escape, but simply to stay out of the splatter zone.
“Teraeth?” Relos Var said. “You have not the coloring of that line, unless…” His eyes widened in triumph. “Not just arrogant, but foolish. Your father Terindel isn’t here to save you, vané child, and you are no match for the likes of me.”
“Terindel isn’t here,” the vané with the terrible voice said, “but I am. And I’ll protect my son, wizard.”
The mage looked at the figure, his forehead creased with anger and then recognition. “Khaemezra. Clever. Very clever.”
“It has been some time, Relos.” The words might have been friendly save for the harsh iciness of the voice.
“We could help each other, High Priestess. Our goals are not so different.”
“Poor child, you think so? Foolish—but then, you always confused death with annihilation.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. The expression on his face verged on a growl. “You, of all beings, should understand inevitability.”
“Perhaps the real problem is I understand it better than you.”
There was no way for Relos Var to make eye contact with the old woman, who had never pulled back her hood, but I imagined the two were staring at each other. Relos Var seemed intent on a contest of wills, and his gaze never left her.
He shuddered and looked away.
A tsking sound emanated from underneath her hood, chasing down a dry chuckle and gobbling it whole.
Relos Var glanced back at Teraeth. “This isn’t over between us.”
“I sincerely hope not,” Teraeth agreed. He wore a wolf’s grin, showing no fear.
Relos Var turned to me.
His expression wasn’t what I expected: not frustration, pity, lust, or even resignation. Hate raged in those dark eyes. His malice burned. His eyes held no promise of rescue, no offered salvation. Whatever his interest in purchasing me, that interest circled around a core of malevolence.
He was not my friend. “I have found you now,” he told me in a whisper. “I have seen the color of your soul.”
A dozen snappy comebacks thought about crossing my lips, but under that baleful stare they all huddled at the back of my throat.
Relos Var turned on his heel and walked out of the room.
Even amongst the members of the Black Brotherhood, there was an almost visible release of tension as he left, as if the clouds parted to reveal the sun.
The seconds crawled by as no one spoke.
Teraeth shook off the dread first. He snatched the medallion from Dethic’s shaking fingers. “Take those things off him.”
“I… what? Things?” Dethic stood blinking in the direction of the door. He had a look of horror on his face—the terrible fascination nor.mally reserved for the damage path of a rampaging demon.
Teraeth pinched the eunuch’s shoulder. “Shackles, Dethic. Shackles. A gaeshed slave has no need to be in irons.”
Dethic jumped out of his reverie. “What? Oh yes, sorry. Right away.” He fumbled the keys from his belt pouch and unlocked me.
I winced as the shackles fell away. I had been in chains so long their release was simply a different kind of pain.
“Relos Var isn’t angry at you, Dethic. Stay out of his way for a while and he’ll soon forget,” Teraeth cautioned. “See if your masters will let you take a leave of absence.”
“Right, right.” Dethic still looked dazed. “I’ll fetch your carriage.” He stumbled as he ran from the room.
The three members of the Black Brotherhood turned their attention to me.
“Who are you people?” I asked.
Teraeth snickered. “You weren’t paying attention?”
“I heard names. Black Brotherhood. It doesn’t mean anything to me.”
The third figure finally spoke with a silky female purr. “If you’re in Quur and want something stolen, or someone beaten, there are plenty you may hire for the task. But if you want someone dead, quietly and without fuss, and you wish to be sure they will stay that way…” She left the end of the sentence hanging in the air.
I was weak and upset, but I felt argumentative. “The priests of Thaena might have something to say about whether someone stays dead.”
The hooded old woman pulled at the robe covering her neck, revealing an amulet: a rectangular black stone, framed with red roses and ivory—the symbol of Thaena’s disciples.
I felt a chill. There are those who don’t think of the Second Veil as a diaphanous shroud, but an unknowable portal to Thaena’s realm. A final portal one never enters, only exits; a journey most only Returned from to start the cycle over as a mewling babe. The church of Thaena boasted the fewest devout worshippers, but was universally respected to either avoid its attention or beg the favor of its mistress. Bring my baby back to me. Return my family. Give me back the people I love.
Such prayers go unanswered. Thaena is a cold goddess.
And Relos Var had called Khaemezra her “High Priestess.”
“Thaena’s priests—and priestesses—do influence who stays dead,” Teraeth explained. “For some reason, the Pale Lady rarely agrees to Return those we have taken.”
“But Thaena’s priests wear white, not black…”
Okay, I admit it: as arguments go, it wasn’t my best work.
Teraeth’s only answer was harsh laughter.
Khaemezra turned away from me without comment and raised her arms. She flicked her fingers outward and strands of light spun out from her fingertips and coalesced into a large round portal made up of complicated skeins of glowing magic. The lights shimmered, then shrank. Through the opening I saw a yellow, twisted land with steam erupting from vents in the ground and bilious fog hugging the dank earth.
I waited, but Khaemezra didn’t step through. Teraeth walked forward, but stopped when she raised her hand. The old woman ticked off a dozen or so seconds on her fingers, then grabbed at the air like pulling a curtain closed. The portal collapsed and vanished.
Teraeth turned to her. “Why aren’t we using the gate?”
“Because Relos Var is expecting us to.” Khaemezra addressed the third Brotherhood member. “Kalindra, once we’re gone, take the coach and lead Relos Var’s dogs on a chase, just in case he decides to protest the sale. Meet up with us later.”
The woman bowed. “As you wish, Mother.” She, too, turned and left.
The Manol vané who held my gaesh, Teraeth, looked me over. He wasn’t happy with what he saw. “You don’t blend in, do you?”
“When was the last time you looked in a mirror?”
He scowled, and then unfastened the front of his robe. Underneath he wore black trousers and a cross-tied tunic of thin silk that was almost, but not quite, a Quuros misha.
Teraeth handed me his robe. “Can you walk with that wound on your ankle?”
“If I have to.” Even as I said the words, I felt myself fighting to keep my balance.
The vané gave his mother an exasperated look. The tiny figure hobbled over to me and placed her hand on my leg.
The pain and the fever faded.
That quickly, the wound on my leg and the whip marks on my back healed. A number of minor scrapes and bruises I’d suffered during the three-month voyage from Quur to Kishna-Farriga also vanished. My head cleared of fever and my vision returned to normal.
“Save your thanks. You’re no good to us hobbled.”
I scowled. “Where did you find that necklace? It can’t have a twin…”
Teraeth grabbed my arm. “I will only explain this once. That man, Relos Var, doesn’t want you as a toy in his seraglio, and he doesn’t care who owns you. He wants you dead. He will do whatever he has to—kill whoever he has to—to make that happen. Being near you puts all our lives in danger.”
“Why? I’ve never met the man. I don’t understand!”
“And I don’t have time to explain. So I need you to follow my orders without question.”
“You’re holding my gaesh. I don’t have any choice.”
He stared at me for a moment as if he had forgotten what the silver hawk he clenched between his fingers meant, then grimaced. “Good. Let’s go.”
Read Chapter 4: Butterbelly
Excerpted from The Ruin of Kings, copyright © 2018 by Jenn Lyons.