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…
9: Souls and Stones
I woke to pain and the rhythmic seesaw of The Misery under sail. I had been jammed into one of the child-sized bunks, naked again, with Teraeth’s black robe draped over me as a makeshift blanket. The man himself leaned against the cabin wall, his expression sullen. His mother, Khaemezra, sat next to my bunk, pressing a wet cloth against my face.
“Ow,” I said. Khaemezra had healed my wounds, but everything hurt—a sore, achy, pulled-muscle hurt.
“You’ll be happy to know you’ll live,” Khaemezra said, sounding amused about the matter.
“At least for now,” Teraeth said. “No telling what the future holds with your talent for getting into trouble.”
“Right, because I asked for this.” I swung my feet out of bed and wrapped the robe around my middle, although it was a bit late for modesty. I attempted to ignore Teraeth and concentrated on his mother. “I should say thank you for saving me from that gaesh attack, but I have to go back to my favorite question: what do you people want from me?”
She smiled. “A better question: how did you survive disobeying a gaesh when no one ever does?”
I hesitated. “What? Wait, but I …” I cleared my throat. “I thought that was your doing?”
Khaemezra shook her head. “Oh, no.”
“Then how—” I put my hand to my throat. The necklace of star tear diamonds was missing, probably reclaimed when they had removed the robe. The Stone of Shackles, however, remained.
She saw the gesture. “Yes, I suspect it was the stone too. It protects its wearer, although it doesn’t do much to mitigate pain. You might wish you were dead.” Khaemezra continued, “Juval was the one who gaeshed you, wasn’t he?”
Yeah, I wasn’t going to fall for that twice. “Don’t be silly.”
Teraeth frowned. “Then why—”
Khaemezra held up a hand. My gaesh charm dangled from her fingers. “You may answer honestly, dear child. I’ve removed the previous prohibitions.”
Teraeth must have given her the gaesh while I was unconscious.
“Oh, well in that case, sure, Juval had someone summon up a demon and that’s who gaeshed me.” I waited for a second, but I didn’t seem inclined to go into convulsions, so I continued. “Juval was furious when he realized he’d been tricked into committing high crimes against the Quuros Empire. It’s not like they’d just smile and dismiss putting a Quuros prince in the rowing galley for a season as ‘just a misunderstanding.’ I convinced him that if he killed me, the priests of Thaena would just lead the Quuros navy to his sails even quicker. He figured ripping out my soul also solved the problem.”
“Being gaeshed doesn’t rip out your soul,” Teraeth snapped.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I replied. “Is that personal experience talking? You’ve been gaeshed? Or have you just gaeshed a whole lot of people? I bet it’s the latter one, huh?”
“The Black Brotherhood doesn’t engage in slavery.”
I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. “The kind auctioneers back in Kishna-Farriga might beg to differ. Didn’t you have reserve seats?”
“We buy vané slaves to free them, not to gaesh them,” he retorted.
“Is that so? Is that what your mother here did with Miya? Freed her? And how do you finance an operation like that? Good intentions? Or do you have a couple dozen more star tears back home?”
“No, but if you’d like to keep stealing them back, we could work something out.”
“Quiet, both of you.” The old woman clucked her tongue. “Teraeth, go upstairs and ask the Captain how many days until we reach Zherias.”
He glared at me a moment longer, his expression righteous. “We don’t sell slaves.”
“Whatever you say, Master.”
He nodded to his mother, his brow furrowed. He spared me one last parting glare and left.
I looked sideways at Khaemezra. “He’s adopted, right?”
The corner of her mouth twitched. “He has chosen to take after his father.”
That stopped me. I’d asked rhetorically. Teraeth was clearly not Khaemezra’s blood kin. “Night and day” was an apt metaphor for the pair. He was one of the Manol vané. She was a Kirpis vané.
At least, I thought she was. A woman who lived and breathed illusions could look like anything she wanted.
I grimaced, rubbing damp palms on the fabric of my robe. “I can’t trust you. I know where those star tears came from.”
“As do I: the hoard of the dragon Baelosh.”
I blinked. “Excuse me?”
“The hoard of the dragon Baelosh,” Khaemezra repeated. “Where they were stolen by Emperor Simillion. After he was murdered, the jewels were locked up with all the other priceless artifacts, in the center of the Arena in the Quuros capital. Centuries later, Emperor Gendal gave the necklace of stars to a striking Zheriaso courtesan whose beauty matched the night sky, and she used the jewels to buy her freedom. When her former owner, a man named Therin, was off having adventures with his friends, he used the necklace to save the life of a vané woman who was about to be executed. He offered to trade the necklace for ownership of the woman’s gaesh—and his vow that she would never return to the Manol.” She smiled. “That’s how the necklace came to me.”
“So you don’t deny that you sold Miya—” I halted. “Execution? She was going to be executed?”
“We call it the Traitor’s Walk. The condemned is gaeshed and forced into the Korthaen Blight. It may sound like exile, but trust me, it’s a death sentence. No rebirth. No Returning.”
“And you thought, ‘Why not make some metal on the side?’”
She scoffed. “I’d have sold her for a handful of glass beads and a broken twig if meant she didn’t end up spitted on a morgage pike, while demons feasted on her soul. I was there when she was born. I watched her grow up. Watching her die would have broken my heart.” The sadness in Khaemezra’s eyes seemed too heartfelt to be anything but genuine.
“You … you know Lady Miya then?” I had assumed their relationship was more … professional. I mean, Dethic the slaver back in Kishna-Farriga “knew” me, but I don’t think he’d have gotten broken up by the idea of my death.
She didn’t answer at first. She turned away and looked to the side and I…
I recognized that gesture, that look. I’d seen it before, even if neither woman looked anything alike. Khaemezra didn’t look like Miya any more than she looked like Teraeth, but something about their manner was so alike, that I recognized the connection immediately.
“Holy thrones, you—” I gaped. “You’re related to Miya.”
She blinked and turned back to me. “How observant. Yes. She was my granddaughter.”
Oh. OH. “How could you? To summon up a demon and watch as it ripped out part of your granddaughter’s soul…”
“Oh, no. I’m not like your Captain Juval. I didn’t order some lackey to summon a demon,” she said. “I gaeshed her soul myself. I used that.” She leaned over and tapped the Stone of Shackles at the base of my throat.
I stared at her in horror. “No, you can’t—this can’t—”
“You probably thought that bauble was a tsali stone, assuming you understand what a tsali stone is. It is not.” She flicked her hands away as if brushing away evil thoughts. “There are eight Cornerstones. Two stones for each of the four founding races. Each different, each with a different awful set of powers, each meant to usurp one of the Eight Gods.” Khaemezra chuckled, low and evil and without any warmth. “They failed in that at least. I’ll take my comforts where I can.”
“I don’t understand. Are you saying I could use this to gaesh other people? But I am gaeshed!”
“So? The Stone of Shackles cares not if your soul is divided or whole, only that it is here on this side of the Second Veil. Listen to me, because this is important: that glittery rock on your chest embodies a concept, and that concept is slavery. Every slave who has ever crawled or squirmed or died at the end of a lash feeds it, just as every death feeds Thaena. You wear an abomination around your neck and it makes the world a more terrible place by the fact of its existence.”
I felt lightheaded and dizzy. People had tried so hard to get me to remove that damn stone. At that moment, I wanted to take it off and throw it across the cabin—more than I had ever wanted anything in my life. I reached for the knot at the back of my neck, fingers scrambling in a panic. “And you used this on your granddaughter? I want it destroyed. I’ll smash it. I’ll break it—”
“As easy to kill a god, dear child. No weapon you own is up to the task. Besides, it protects you. The Stone of Shackles saved your life just a few minutes ago. Your enemies believe they cannot kill you so long as you wear it; that the power of the Stone of Shackles would twist such an act to mean their deaths and not yours. Why do you think I gave it to Miya? As for why I used it on her, I had my reasons. Leave it at that.”
That stopped me cold. Khaemezra was right, of course. The necklace couldn’t be taken by force; it had to be freely given.
Also, she’d just given an order.
I forced my hand away from the stone. “Is this what Relos Var wants? The Stone of Shackles?”
Khaemezra sighed. “No. I doubt he cares for that particular trinket.
He seeks something other than a magic necklace—your destruction.”
“But why does he want to kill me? I’ve never met him, or done anything to him.”
She smiled at me in a grandmotherly sort of way. “Dear child, I did not say he wants to kill you.”
“But you said—” I stopped and felt cold. As a priestess of the Death Goddess, she wouldn’t be imprecise with any phrasing concerning murder.
“Killing you would be a sloppy mistake, one that puts you back in the Afterlife, to be reborn or Returned.” She reached over and patted my knee. “Understand, it was pure luck …” She nodded at me. “… pure luck, that we had any idea about this auction. A source overheard Relos Var discussing the sale, and relayed that information to us without understanding its significance. However, I don’t know how he knew you would be there.”
“He could have heard about my kidnapping. I’m sure half of Quur knows I’m missing by this point.” I grimaced. “How he knew to go looking for me in the Kishna-Farriga slave pits though … if Darzin knew where I was—” I paused. “Darzin’s found me before. Could he have ordered this Relos Var person to collect me once he knew my location?”
She blinked at me and then laughed, awful and loud. “No.”
“Darzin might be Relos Var’s lackey, but never the reverse. Prior to this you have met small men with small ambitions. But Relos Var? Relos Var is a Power, one of the strongest in the whole world.”
“Thanks for telling me. I’ll sleep so well tonight.” I swallowed. “Why me, again?”
“There’s a prophecy.”
I stared at her.
Khaemezra stared back.
I blanched, looked away, and reminded myself not to get into staring contests with High Priestesses of death cults. “I don’t believe in prophecy.”
“Neither do I. Unfortunately, Relos Var seems to take these prophecies seriously, so I must as well. And in the meantime, I would like to train you and make sure that the next time you run into trouble, you will be better prepared.” She smiled. “I’ll think of it as a favor to Miya.”
“No thanks, I already have a—” I started to say, I already have a goddess. I couldn’t spit out the words.
She noticed the pause and her eyes narrowed. “Yes, Taja is your patron. But despite our origins, worshiping the Death Goddess is not a requirement for admission into our order. I seek a soldier, not a priest or fanatic. The Goddess of Luck will not object to your training at our hands.”
I closed my eyes and shuddered. “I don’t give a fuck what Taja wants with me.”
When I opened my eyes again, Khaemezra stared at me with open contempt.
“Fool,” she whispered. She’d used much the same tone with Relos Var.
Blood warmed my cheeks. “You don’t understand what I’ve been through—”
“What is it about the idiot men in your family that you are all such fools? Stubborn. Mule-headed! If one of the Sisters chooses to give you her grace, do you think you can walk away from a goddess? That you can say ‘Bah, a bad thing has happened to me, fie on my goddess forever’? Taja walks with you as much now as she ever did. She protects you and comforts you, and if you will not see it, that is not her doing.”
I rolled my eyes. “Exactly what I’d expect a priest to say. Easy words when you don’t sit here gaeshed, with the dried blood from flayed skin still staining your back. She … She …” I realized I shouldn’t say the words, but the damage hurt. What happened to me still hurt. Khaemezra may have healed the damage to my body, but the damage to my emotions, my soul, still festered, hot and raw.
I leaned forward and finished the sentence. “She betrayed me.”
Khaemezra’s nostrils flared. “You’re mistaken.”
“The Quuros navy had found me.” I gestured toward the hull of the ship. “I’d spent months huddled in the rowing galley downstairs, praying the slave masters didn’t remember I was there, and then the navy arrived, looking for me. And what happened? They couldn’t see me. The one time in my life I didn’t want to be invisible. I watched as that navy captain looked right through me, even though I was exactly who he was looking for—the only yellow-haired bastard in the room. That was the moment I realized that my goddess didn’t want me rescued.”
“Of course not. Going back to Quur would have been a disaster.”
“A disaster?” I tried to keep my voice a careful neutral.
Khaemezra glanced as me, narrowed her eyes, and I knew I’d failed. She saw the anger as clearly as if I’d lost my temper outright. “Return to Quur and you die.”
“You don’t know that.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Oh child. You think so?”
“I do. I had a plan. It would have worked. Instead, people I love are probably dead.”
“Yes. Some are. Far more would be dead if you had stayed. I know that. I know that far better than you.”
I looked at her.
“What was it you said, not five minutes ago? About how you convinced Juval not to kill you outright? The dead keep no secrets from the Pale Lady.”
“Yes, but I was lying to Juval. The lady’s priests weren’t looking for me—my grandfather hadn’t been an active priest of Thaena since before I was born.”
“He’s not the only one who speaks to her.” She paused, as if deciding to change tactics. “I am well familiar with Darzin D’Mon, the one you call ‘Pretty Boy.’ Do you know why?”
Without waiting for my answer, she continued. “He once sought access to our order. He once sought to be part of the Black Brotherhood, to seek solace from his imagined pains and injustices in the embrace of the Lady of Death. She refused him as an unworthy suitor and, like an unworthy suitor who would force himself on a lady who does not love him, he obsesses over her. He glories in murder, each one an offering to a goddess who does not seek them, each innocent life a rotted rose left before Thaena’s gate. Had you been able to go through with your grand plan, he would have added another flower to his macabre bouquet.”
“You still don’t know that.”
“Oh, I do.” She shook her head. “At least once a week, sometimes more, your ‘Pretty Boy’ goes to the Winding Sheet in Velvet Town. As someone who grew up in that part of the Capital, I trust you are familiar with that particular brothel and its reputation?”
My mouth tasted like ash. “I know what they sell.”
“Once a week, ‘Pretty Boy’ makes a special request, one difficult to fulfill, so it requires the services of a priest of Caless to make sure that the young men provided are exotic: gold-haired and blue-eyed. Just like you. Temporary, but the illusion need not last for more than a few hours. Would you like to know what ‘Pretty Boy’ does with his pretty boys? How many mangled flowers he has left on the lady’s doorstep?”
I looked away. “No.” Damn me though, I imagined well enough. The catamites and whores of the Winding Sheet aren’t rented, but purchased.
One does not rent something whose purpose is to be destroyed.
Khaemezra stood up. “Please think on my words. We are not your enemy, and you are in dire needs of friends. Sooner or later, you will have to trust someone.”
After she left, I sat there with my fist wrapped around the Stone of Shackles and thought about my options. I had no way to tell what had happened to my real family, if Ola still lived. I had no way to tell what had been done to those I loved while I traveled in chains to Kishna-Farriga, or what might still happen while I was under the Black Brotherhood’s control. Training, Khaemezra had said. Maybe they would train me. Maybe not.
More than anything, I wondered how much of what I had just been told was truth, and how much was lie, and if I had any way to know the difference.
Excerpted from The Ruin of Kings, copyright © 2018 by Jenn Lyons.