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…
14: Bedtime Stories
When Ola looked through the green beaded curtain into her bathing room, she found Kihrin stripped of his torn, stained clothes and lounging in her special copper tub. Lantern light flared off motes of dust and sparkled on the bath water, which soap, fragrant oils, and blood had colored milky pink. Kihrin had scrubbed his bronze skin to a bright red, pressing so hard with the sea sponge he had scratched himself in places. His neck was ruddier than the rest of him, contrasting with the blue tsali stone.
Her baby boy was talking with the new dancer. To Ola’s surprise, the girl was still dressed. She hadn’t helped with the bath at all, which Ola thought strange, given how Kihrin had been mooning after her.
Ola scowled, her thoughts troubled by dark memories of an ill-spent youth. She pushed the expression from her face, straightened her shoulders, and inhaled. Ola entered with all the flamboyance of a Reveler-trained circus performer. “Ah! Yes! Here is a feast for my poor darling boy.”
Ola gathered a small folding table, which she set up next to the tub.
Kihrin laughed. “Don’t you think that’s too much food?”
The whorehouse madam smiled. “I brought a little of all the day’s specials from the kitchen.” She waved her hand over the tray of food like a waiter presenting the meal. “We have hot peppered goat with strips of fresh voracress, mutton with leado sauce wrapped and grilled in the traditional banana leaf, nakari marinated yellow fish with mango, fried bezevo root fingers, coconut rice, heart of palm, and pieces of bitter melon with chocolate.” Then, as if she’d forgotten, she added, “And some of my Kirpis grape wine. It will relax you.”
Morea gave Ola a startled look, so the whorehouse madam added, “I know, I know. I mostly save it for rituals, but I’ve always liked grape wines more than the local rice or coconut wines when I’m trying to relax.”
Kihrin lay back against the tub. The window light reflecting in his eyes danced and skipped. “I don’t eat this good on my naming day, Ola.”
She chuckled. “You might if you ran into demons more often. You should try the yellow fish. That’s nakari powder from Valasi’s, not from Irando.” Ola cast a knowing glance at Morea, and the girl blushed and looked away. Everyone knew nakari powder was made from aphrodisiacs. That was the whole reason a place like the Shattered Veil Club served it.
Ola teased the girl for Kihrin’s benefit but he never so much as glanced at Morea when Ola mentioned Valasi’s. She frowned. Surdyeh had been upset, but for the first time Ola wondered just how bad it had been out there.
Kihrin picked up the goblet from the tray, paused with it at his lips, and then lowered it. He reached for the fried bezevo fingers, long deep-fried wedges of sweet root, and leaned back against the copper rim again. “Tell me about the day you found me, Ola.”
Ola blinked. Of all the … why did he want to hear that story? Why did he want to hear that story now? She flicked her fingers at him and snorted. “You know this story.”
The boy grinned as he ate. “Morea hasn’t heard it yet.”
“You want me to tell tales? At a time like this?”
Kihrin set his goblet on the floor, on the opposite side of the tub from Ola. He cast a meaningful glance in Morea’s direction. “You always used to say that times like this are the best times to tell stories. Good luck, remember?”
The look told Ola everything. She knew Kihrin liked the girl, but she had no idea he liked her that much. And yet, here he was, obviously enchanted, for the first time in his life holding back. A girl like Morea had probably never known a man who gave her any consideration or courted her feelings. He was trying to impress the girl, and so, he was letting her set the pace. Her smile for her adopted son was warm and sentimental.
“She hasn’t heard it yet,” Ola repeated in a teasing mock. “She don’t need to hear it, either.” Ola looked up at Morea, whose eyes were uncertain and clouded. “Well child? Do you need to hear a story while you give him a bath? And why the hell aren’t you bathing him, anyhow?”
“Because I told her not to,” Kihrin said, and gestured to the plate of food. “Morea, this is too much for me. Eat something.”
“Go on, Ola, give us a story. Tell me about my mother.” He paused. “I suppose I could tell it …”
“You’d never tell it right. You weren’t there.”
“I was there,” Kihrin corrected. “I may not remember it, but I was most definitely there.”
“You are an uncontrollable rogue. I don’t know what I was thinking the day I picked you up from that park.”
“Tell me the story anyway,” Kihrin teased. “Even though I don’t brush my hair and I don’t obey—”
“And you don’t do your chores—” Ola added with a huff.
“And I’m never up and dressed by the first bell—” he agreed.
“And you’re a thief—” she accused.
“And I drink too much—” he confessed.
“And you’re far too young to be such an incorrigible womanizer—” she yelled with increasing volume.
“And I’m a terrible burden on my father!”
They both shouted the last line together, ending in hails of laughter that resulted in Kirhin leaning forward, coughing. Ola whacked Kihrin a few times on the back when it seemed like he might choke. Finally, Kihrin reached for his goblet of wine and took several long gasping droughts before his lungs settled.
Morea had her hand over her mouth too. She looked like she was trying not to laugh.
“All right,” Ola said, as much to Morea as Kihrin. “I’ll tell you the tale.” To Morea she said, “He’ll be sixteen years old this New Year’s, and it will be sixteen years ago, this New Year’s, that the old Emperor of Quur died.”
“What was his name?” Kihrin asked, with a wink to Morea, who looked startled as a lamb upon realizing the tigers were not going to eat her after all.
“Gendal,” Ola answered. “Do you want me to tell this story or not?” She straightened her agolé for emphasis.
“Yes, it was sixteen years ago, and Gendal had been murdered. We knew it was murder, because murder, my dear girl, is the only way an Emperor of Quur can die.”
“No risk of an accidental death?” Kihrin asked. He leaned his head against the copper side of the tub, smiling.
“Not even if he tripped on a rock and fell over Demon Falls,” Ola replied with grim authority.
“He can’t catch the pox?” Kihrin asked.
“Quite immune,” Ola answered.
“Could he have eaten something poisonous?” Morea asked. She bit her lip but the whisper of a smile played at the corners there.
“That’s the spirit, girl. No, he could not. Not even Manol black lotus could hurt him,” came Ola’s firm reply.
“And when he grows old?” Kihrin pretended to be skeptical.
“From the moment the Emperor places the Great Crown of Quur on his brow,” Ola raised a solitary finger upward and poked at the heavens, “he is immortal. He will never age, he will never be sick. No, the only way the Emperor can die is by violence—by murder.”
“So how did you know he was dead?” Kihrin asked. He scrubbed himself with one hand while holding his goblet of wine with the other.
“We knew because inside the Arena, where the contest itself is held, past the great invisible barrier that surrounds it—came a great shining light. It was the light of the Crown and the Scepter of Quur. They return to the Arena when the heart of their owner beats no more. And they wait there for the next man who dares claim them. You can believe me, child, when I say men wasted no time spreading the word that the old Emperor was dead. It was time to choose a new Emperor. Everyone came to see.”
“Oh yes,” Ola said as she nodded her head. “Everyone. Rich, poor, old, young, fat, thin, freemen, slaves, citizens, and foreigners came to the park that very day. Some folk go their entire lives without seeing the choosing of the Emperor. Gendal himself lived for two hundred years. The opportunity to see the Choosing happens at most once in any person’s life, and no one wanted to miss it: least of all the men who hoped to become the next Emperor.”
She smiled at the memory. “Ah, you should have seen it, my lambs. There was barely room to stand in Arena Park—barely room to breathe! There was no rank or status at such a time. Commoners bumped shoulders with High Lords. Guild masters found themselves boxed in by street thugs. Velvet girls were felt up by Ivory Circle priests! More purses were cut than ever before or ever since.” She paused significantly.
“But worse crimes than purse-cutting were committed that day.”
“Like what?” Kihrin raised an eyebrow at Morea, as if she might know the answer. Morea smiled and held up her hands.
“The contest itself, some would say,” Ola explained. “For thousands of years the Great Empire has chosen its highest ruler in the same way— by contest of blood. They lowered the invisible wall surrounding the Arena, and all those men rushed in to claim the Crown and Scepter— and kill anyone who might seek to claim it first. I watched the best and brightest wizards of a generation go up in brightly colored patches of smoke on that day. Believe me when I say that with a little magic, human flesh can burn any color you can imagine and a few you probably can’t. The land inside the Arena was a cooking pot: it melted, it boiled, it flowed, and it steamed. And out of the crucible was born our Emperor.”
“So, who won?” Morea asked.
Ola was thrown aback for a moment as she realized the slave girl genuinely didn’t know. Ah, but what need for a sex slave to know the name of the Emperor? She probably didn’t know how to read or write either. Not everyone’s master was as liberal as Ola’s master Therin had been. The madam swallowed bile, shook her head, and continued the story.
“To the profound embarrassment of the royalty, a commoner won,” Ola told Morea. “A peasant from Marakor named Sandus. But to win the Great Tournament is to become Emperor, no matter what your previous status, and so Sandus became our ruler. He still is to this day. When he finally exited the Arena, the crowd screamed so loud that you could hear nothing but a roar. And that, my girl, is when I found Kihrin.”
“Yup, it sure is,” Kihrin nodded in agreement, splashing water.
“I saw his mother first, noticed her through the crowd,” Ola’s voice turned at once sad and passionate with longing. “She was an extraordinary beauty with golden wheat skin and a shimmering brown curtain of hair. Her eyes were as gentle and kind as a fawn’s. She was lovely enough to be a princess, dressed in an agolé of fine ivory satin. She carried a small package in her arms, no larger than a few pieces of firewood.”
Morea paused. She looked at Kihrin. The young man frowned and stared at the cloudy water as if it were a scrying glass. He was silent.
Morea turned back to Ola. “So, what happened?”
“I saw a man rush up toward her, place his hands around her neck, and choke the life out of her. There was nowhere for her to run to, you understand? And no way for me to reach her, because I was so crushed in with the others I couldn’t move. Still, she made a great showing for herself and fought valiantly, not that it did any good in the end.”
“Didn’t anyone try to help?” Kihrin whispered the question this time, his voice bitter.
“It is Quur, is it not? No one lifted a finger to help that lady. I saw the woman fall just as the roar of the new Emperor’s victory covered her screams, and by the time I reached the spot where she lay, her murderer was gone. Only her body and my darling, the babe she carried, remained. When I picked him up, I discovered, much to my amazement, that he was alive. He still had his birthing blood on him, and it was obvious little Kihrin had only come into the world that day. So if I had left him for someone else to find he would have surely died.” She grinned impishly as she finished the tale. “Kihrin is my one and only act of charity, which means that it’s true what they say about virtue.”
Kihrin stifled a yawn. “And what is it they say, Mama Ola?”
“It never goes unpunished!” She snapped the edge of a towel at him and howled. He splashed bathwater at her. Morea quickly stepped out of the way.
Morea looked at Ola and then back at Kihrin, her expression wondering. “So, you really are an Ogenra then?”
“Garbage. Fewmets!” Ola sputtered. “What nonsense is this?”
Morea shrank back under the onslaught of Ola’s volatile anger. “I didn’t mean …”
“It’s just a story, Morea,” Kihrin said. “A god-king tale. In this part of town there are a thousand orphans—ten thousand orphans. And if you got us drunk enough, every single one of us would admit to a dream that we’re a long-lost prince, that ours is a romantic tale of betrayal and woe. The truth is what I told you earlier: Surdyeh found me on the trash heaps. I was abandoned by a mother who didn’t want me.” He shrugged as if it didn’t matter.
Morea would always wonder, though. Ola knew that had been Kihrin’s whole point—as well as the only reason Ola had played along.
Ola chuckled. “Can you see me naming a child ‘Kihrin’ anyway? Surdyeh picked out that one when he adopted the boy.”
“Captain Jarith said it was a traditional Kirpis name,” Kihrin said, drowsily.
“Did he now? You and he get all friendly?” A faint tinge of menace crept into Ola’s voice. She had no love for the city guard or the army soldiers, but most of all—most of all—for the sons of men who had known her when she was a courtesan herself.
“He’s not so bad for a soldier. I don’t think he’d be so friendly if he knew what I do for a living—” Kihrin closed his eyes and began to slide down the side of the tub, the remaining wine spilling out of his goblet into the water like fresh blood.
“Quick girl, get his arms. Don’t let him go under,” Ola ordered.
Morea, used to following orders, grabbed at Kihrin. Ola roughly hauled the naked young man from the tub, a reminder that she was larger than most Quuros men, larger even than Kihrin.
“You … you …” Morea blinked in shock.
“Relax child. He ain’t poisoned, just drugged up a bit.” She shifted his body into a position easier to carry.
“Now come on. Help me get him into bed.”
Morea did as Ola ordered and tucked the young man into the large cotton-stuffed bed normally used by Ola alone.
The brothel madam retreated into the bathroom and brought back the tray of food, which she placed on a small table. She ate noisily, with great appetite, and motioned for Morea to do the same.
“I ain’t never called myself the boy’s mother,” Ola explained, “but I am his mother in all the ways that matter. I love him like he was mine. Just like he was born out of my own womb. And I’m proud of him. Proud as any mother could be of her son. I don’t want him coming to no harm. I’ll protect him, even if I have to protect him from himself.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I wouldn’t expect you to. Let’s just say that he’s stubborn. He gets that from me. Oh, he might act all flighty sometimes, but that ain’t how he is really. Truth, he gets something into his head, he don’t ever let it go. He’ll just keep worrying at it, coming back to it, until he’s worn it down, like the winds tearing down a mountain. Damn, but I wish his father had more sense. You can’t tell a boy like Kihrin to stay away from an invitation to the High General’s house and expect the boy will do it. Demons, no. Surdyeh’s gone and made that just about irresistible. Being told he can’t just makes it all the worse.” Ola wrapped some fish up in a flat piece of sag bread and munched. “Mmm … good sauce today.”
“Would meeting the High General be so bad?”
Ola stopped in mid-bite, and gave Morea such a glare that the girl yelped. “Yes, it would, and I ain’t going to explain why that is. You need to trust that I know what I’m about. He can’t go.” Her expression softened, and she said, “he’ll sleep tonight, sleep deep, and he’ll have rowdy dreams because of what I gave him. In the morning, he’ll wake up with you in his arms and he’ll think missing the meeting with the General was his own damn fault. And everything will be okay.”
Morea didn’t answer, but her expression was skeptical.
“He likes you,” Ola said, “so you can help me. There’s a big reward in it for you if you do.”
“What sort of reward?”
“My boy has some money saved up. Don’t ask where he got it from. Never mind that. I figure he’s got a tidy sum stashed up with the priests of Tavris up in the Ivory Quarter. He’s planning on buying his pappa a tavern in Eamithon, someplace nice and peaceful to retire to. Nice people up there. I found the perfect tavern a while back and I went ahead and bought it. Kihrin don’t know I done it though. So I figure tomorrow I’ll let Kihrin buy that tavern from me, on the cheap, and I’ll send Kihrin there with his father and his pick of a couple slave girls to do waitress duty and the like. They take a dim view of slavery over in Eamithon, so it wouldn’t be long at all before you found yourself a free woman. You’d end up being paid—legitimately—for your time and trouble, and with that boy just as crazy about you as crazy can be.”
“What do I have to do?”
“Nothing you don’t want to. Don’t think I ain’t seen how you stare at him. Just keep the boy distracted, keep him from thinking too much about crazy ideas of rubbing shoulders with his betters. We ain’t nothing to people like them. They chew us up and spit us out as easy as eggnuts.”
Morea nodded. “Of course, I’ll help.”
“Good! Good. Now you get out of them clothes and make all warm and cuddly with my boy so he’s not thinking clearly when he wakes up.” Ola wiped her greasy fingers on the front of her agolé and stood, crossing over to where Kihrin lay on her bed. She stared at him. Her eyes were haunted.
“I’ve made a mistake,” Ola whispered.
“Mistress, did you say something?”
Ola almost smiled. “I said … oh veils, never mind. You get to be my age, girl, and you look back over your life and sometimes you don’t like what you see. I’ve done plenty I’m not proud of, but I always had a good reason for it. Survival, mostly. Just trying to get by, to protect myself, just like every other damn bastard in the Lower Circle. They’re all jackals down here, just waiting for you to make a mistake.” Then she laughed, hard and cynical. “I guess that ain’t much different from how things are in the Upper Circle, is it?”
Her expression sobered, and she said, “I ain’t done much in my life that was just pure maliciousness, pure spite. Save one thing. Just one. And it’s come looking for me. I can feel its breath on my heels …”
Ola Nathera closed her eyes, for just a moment, and shuddered. “You can look at someone your whole life and never see them. But Qoran, that damn General. Those damned eyes. Those Milligreest boys were never blind. He’ll know just what he’s looking at, assuming he ain’t seen it already.”
After a moment, Ola gestured toward the bed. “Well? Get in there and take good care of my boy.”
Morea nodded and unwrapped her agolé. Ola stared at her and then grunted. “At least he’s got good taste,” she said. “Must get that from me too.” Without another word, she turned and left.
Several moments later, Morea heard the sound of the front door open and close.
The dancer tiptoed out to the front room and looked around carefully to make sure no one was there, that Ola really had left.
“She’s gone,” Kihrin’s voice said behind her. “That woman weighs close to three hundred pounds. She’s good at a lot of things, but sneaking isn’t one of them.”
Morea turned to see Kihrin had stood up from the bed. Candlelight outlined his body in golden pink highlights. The rim light made him look otherworldly and unreal—beautiful but alien. He looked too beautiful to be human.
Morea reached for her clothing. “You switched cups, didn’t you? You knew she would drug the wine.”
“I couldn’t have done it without your help. You were the perfect distraction. Anyway, it was a safe bet. She likes using riscoria weed, and grape wine is the best way to hide the taste. She’ll feed it to a mark if she wants them to wake in a compromising situation, with the vague memory that maybe they did things the night before that they shouldn’t have.” He sounded disappointed.
“Stay with me,” Morea said. “Don’t go.”
Kihrin shook his head. “I have to.”
“You heard what she said. Eamithon sounds nice, doesn’t it?”
He looked at her, blinked with surprise. “I have to warn the General about that demon. Besides, Captain Jarith said he’d meet me tonight with news about your sister.”
She felt as though she’d been slapped across the face. “Oh.”
The expression on the young man’s face softened, became something that was almost tenderness. “I’ll go and meet with General Milligreest, take his reward and talk to him about the demon, then find Captain Jarith and come back here. Ola will never know I left and tomorrow morning we’ll pretend that everything went exactly as Ola planned. She’s always a lot easier to deal with if she thinks she got her way.” Kihrin began looking around, rooting through wardrobes and cabinets. He pulled out a pair of baggy kef trousers and a matching vest with slippers, all in bright, festive colors.
“Let’s hope these still fit. They were large last New Year’s Festival, but I’ve grown since then.”
Morea helped him with the clothing and his hair, worrying over him. She was careful not to touch him, although her fingers shook and she suspected the nakari powder was having an effect. She wanted to touch him, hold him, and thank him with the only thing of value she thought she possessed, but she didn’t. Instead, she helped him dress and watched him leave out a back window.
She then turned her attentions to making sure the bed looked like it held two bodies instead of one.
Excerpted from The Ruin of Kings, copyright © 2018 by Jenn Lyons.