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…
15: The Zherias Maw
Surdyeh’s repertoire had always included sea tales, essential for a port town like the Capital. I was all too familiar with stories of the Desolation, an area of reef, broken islands, shoal, and becalmed sea that ate up ships the way Yoran witches ate children. From the north side, calm seas without wind or current left ships stranded. A southern approach meant conflicting currents, giant waves, and rocks for ships to dash themselves upon.
Some said the vané crafted the Desolation to keep the navies of Quur off their shores. Others said a forgotten god’s death was to blame. The Desolation interfered with shipping lines and caused panic in the hearts of seasoned sailors. The Daughters of Laaka, the kraken: those were a god-king tale, something a man who sailed all his life might never see. The Desolation was a certainty that waited to trap the unwary. I’d heard rumors of Zheriaso pirates who used the Desolation as refuge, but most scoffed at these stories—anyone fool enough to sail the Desolation would only end up as one of its victims.
Whether we would ever reach the Desolation was a matter of debate. On the Quuros side, to the north, the Desolation itself was the most pressing danger, but we were approaching from the south. Before we reached the mists, we faced the Zherias Maw, the result of the strong southern current hitting the rocks of the Desolation’s island chain. With no outlet, the current turned in on itself, creating a churning brine capable of smashing ships against the hidden reefs of the Desolation. The Maw waited long before The Misery reached the dead waters on the other side.
Teraeth hoped that the kraken would find passage through the Maw too difficult and would turn back.
I thought the assassin was being naïve.
For this stretch of the journey, I didn’t growl as I heard the shouts of Magoq the galley master, who was whipping the slaves to row faster. Even with a strong wind in our sails, we needed the speed. Tyentso manipulated the currents to slow our pursuer, but if I looked out behind us using my second sight, I could see the glowing spectral outline of the monster gaining on us.
We sailed for three days but weren’t losing the creature. I knew—knew in my heart, in my bones—that if it caught us, it would kill every person onboard, freeman or slave. Any who survived would either drown, be picked off by sharks, or devoured by the Maw. Already, the water surrounding the ship was turning choppy. Worse, the ship was starting to turn, to sail at an angle counter to the direction of Tyentso’s summoned winds.
It would be poetic to say it was a stormy, dreary day, but the sky was bright and beautiful. Even the increasingly jerky water was an intense blue. It didn’t seem like a day for dying, but then again, Surdyeh never once told me a story where Thaena the Death Goddess paid any attention to the weather.
For the first time in many months, I gave serious consideration to praying.
I spotted Khaemezra standing against the railing, talking to Tyentso, who looked more wan and frightened than I ever imagined possible. She hadn’t flinched at summoning a demon, but this? If the kraken didn’t kill us, the Maw would, and she seemed aware of the realities. Khaemezra, on the other hand, was as calm as if seated in a restaurant waiting for the waiter to bring her a second cup of tea.
“May I speak with you two ladies for a moment?”
Khaemezra smiled at me, but Tyentso snorted. “Lady? Good to see you haven’t lost your sense of humor.”
I bowed to her extravagantly. Fortunately, she was looking for anything to distract her from thinking about our situation, and laughed instead of turning me into a fish. Although I thought it might be handy to be a fish when the kraken showed up.
Preferably a small one.
I gestured back toward our pursuer. “She’s not fallen back, even with the time we’re making, and I have a feeling she’s playing with us. She’ll attack before we can reach the Maw.”
Tyentso’s expression twisted, and she looked green. “Too late for that.”
“No, I think we—what?”
“We entered the Maw several hours ago,” Khaemezra whispered. “The outer edges are calm, so the crew doesn’t realize yet. Our only chance is to approach the fangs in the correct order, sail round the Throat, and hit the safe passage perfectly, without waking the Old Man.”
“Could you repeat that in a way that makes sense?”
She clicked her teeth together in annoyance. “The main vortex is called the Throat, but there are eddies, little currents, spiraling off the main whirlpool. We call those fangs. Most ships are ruined by the fangs before they ever reach the Throat.”
“And what’s the Old Man?”
“There are worse things than kraken in these waters.” Khaemezra cocked her head, examining me with those strange blue-green eyes. Looking at them, I thought they were the color of the sky, then decided that no, they were the color of the sea. Then I had the peculiar thought that the vané hag’s eyes were a mirror reflecting the light of ocean and firmament; that indoors, underground, at night, Khaemezra’s eyes would have no color at all.
In any event, she had spooky eyes.
“What can we do?” I found myself matching her whispers. “If this ship crashes, those slaves will drown.”
Tyentso rolled her eyes. “Think to your own skin. Even a Zheriaso will drown in the Maw. If this ship goes down, we all drown.”
I continued staring at Khaemezra. “I don’t think so. If you didn’t want Teraeth to reveal the safe passage, you could’ve shut him up. We’re going where you want us to go.”
The old woman smiled. “Clever child. You’re wondering: is Relos Var truly responsible for the kraken behind us, or did I summon it? Is this all a ruse to convince the Captain to willingly change course and take us directly to where we want to go? Will I sacrifice all these people for a quicker, untraceable passage?”
I swallowed. She hit all the right points.
“You couldn’t! If we lose the ship—!” Tyentso’s voice started to rise, but Khaemezra gestured to her and her speech stopped. I couldn’t tell if she had used magic or simple intimidation. Khaemezra’s gaze never left me, but I found it difficult to meet her stare.
“Will you?” I finally whispered. “Will you let them all die?”
“What do you think?” she asked.
I remembered what I knew about Thaena. I remembered the look on Teraeth’s face as he stared down at the slaves in the hold. I remembered Khaemezra’s concern when I almost died because of the gaesh. I would’ve thought cultists of a death goddess more callous, but they defied my attempts to pin them with an easy label.
“No, I don’t think you’d let them die here,” I finally said, “but that doesn’t mean you didn’t call in the kraken. You’d do it if you thought you could free those slaves.”
“So now a kraken is a weapon of emancipation?” The corner of her mouth twitched upward. “I must admit I’ve never heard that one before. But I didn’t do it, and I believe Relos Var did. You may choose to doubt me, but it remains the truth.”
“That puts us right back at being destroyed by the kraken, devoured by the Maw, or dashed apart on the shoals of the Desolation.”
“You forgot about the Old Man,” Tyentso added. “She hasn’t explained that one yet.”
“Pray I never have to.” The old vané woman turned to me. “You want to help? Watch my son’s back. When things go wrong, someone will try something stupid. He’s going to need to keep his concentration.”
“Wouldn’t you do a better job of that? I don’t even have a weapon.”
“Tyentso and I will be directing our energies to keeping the ship intact as it suffers forces far beyond its normal capacity to endure,” Khaemezra said. “You may not have mastered all the skills that are your birthright, but the ability to pass unnoticed is very much your own. I suggest you make that the key to your goals.” She pushed a dagger into my hands. “And now you are a man with a knife. Woe to the Empire.”
As I turned to leave, I looked over at the ocean water and frowned. Khaemezra saw my expression and turned as well.
“It begins,” she said.
Tyentso made a whimpering sound, and moved toward the stairs. Khaemezra grabbed her arm.
“Be strong, daughter,” she told Tyentso. “I am with you this day.” Then, to me: “Go, while you still can.”
We sailed on the lazy edge of what looked like a slick of oil. The perfectly smooth water was shiny as glass and stretched for three hundred feet. Everything looked serene and safe and calm.
Then a rumbling noise filled the air. The center of the slick erupted in a column of thrashing steam and water. When the water spilled back down, it sank as though draining through the bottom of the world. In seconds we were staring at three hundred feet of spinning gyre, a maelstrom of ocean water spilling down into unfathomable darkness.
We rode on the edge, balanced on the precipice of a cliff. The ship listed, staying in place by what magic—hmm … now that I think about it, I’m sure I do know by what magic. The Misery sailed faster than row or sail could account, racing along at unholy speed.
The crew couldn’t help seeing this. They were silent for a moment before shouts and cries and even orders to help were drowned by the scream of the whirlpool.
I looked around. No one was in a blind panic yet, and Teraeth could handle himself. It would be a while yet before the chaos transformed into screaming frenzy—likely when the crew realized this was a minor “fang” and not the Throat itself.
There was one other detail I wanted to take care of first.
16: The General’s Reward
Kihrin skipped saying goodbye to Surdyeh, although his thoughts were on his father the entire time he navigated the winding streets to the Upper Circle. Under other circumstances, Surdyeh would have been overflowing with supposedly helpful advice on how to behave around nobility. Under other circumstances, Surdyeh would have lectured endlessly on etiquette in his quest to assure his son’s future as a musician. This always struck Kihrin as hypocritical, when Surdyeh knew perfectly well his success in the Revelers Guild depended on a magical aptitude that the old man refused to let his son legally pursue.
Kihrin never once considered that Surdyeh and Ola’s reasons for keeping him from this meeting might have been legitimate. All he could see was he’d been given a chance: a chance to impress Morea, a chance to win a reward gained on his own merits instead of his father’s and a chance to shake off the curse of a demon he was sure still hunted him. A chance to escape Velvet Town and the Lower Circle forever.
Besides, he was curious.
The night air cooled the wildfire temperatures left over from the Quuros summer day. The rainbow scintillation of Tya’s Veil and the soft glow of all three moons lit the sky. The shadows staggered over the whitewashed cobblestones like drunk men more afraid of coming home to their wives than the dangers of passing out in an alley. At night, the streets of Velvet Town were more crowded than during the day; this was an entertainment district after all, and not one where the customers wished to be recognized. Sallí cloaks paraded silently, with hoods up; a field of muddy phantoms making the rounds from home to brothel and back again.
His feet slowed as Kihrin climbed the great Stair of Dreams. He’d never passed this way before. There’d never been a need. On those few occasions Surdyeh had taken him to the Ivory District (or later, when Kihrin had come by himself), they’d always used the Praying Gate entrance. By contrast, the switch-backing marble steps of the Stair of Dreams were the only public access to the maze of manicured hedges, estates, villas, and palaces Quur’s elite called home. Halfway up, Kihrin realized the long, steep stairs were purposefully intimidating. Royalty traveled by litter or carriage, and would use private gates. Only commoners ever made this climb. They would arrive at their destination gasping for breath and humbled.
He suspected he might be in trouble when the Watchmen at the top of the stairs recognized and were expecting him—exactly as Captain Jarith had promised. They dispatched an escort to show him the way to the Milligreest estate, eliminating any possibility he might become “lost.” Normally he’d have resented the babysitting, but this once he was grateful. Without it he’d have arrived late or never found the place at all. Unlike the guards he was used to, these were polite, clean, and professional, and Kihrin didn’t quite know how to deal with that.
The Milligreest estate was in the Ruby District, which Kihrin could tell because all the mage-lights on the street (there were mage-lights on the streets!) were red. He knew enough about the Royal Houses to know the Red Men—the Metalsmiths Guild—owed their allegiance here. He didn’t know enough to remember the House’s name.
He knew the Royal Houses of the Court of Gems were god-touched, knew they alone had been blessed by divinity. While each of the twelve houses was identified by some meaningless bit of heraldry, they could also be recognized by the color of the gems the houses used as tokens.
He knew House D’Jorax’s mark was rainbow-hued, their Royal Family had eyes like opals, and they controlled the Revelers. Surdyeh paid them a yearly guild fee for membership and his license to perform. Kihrin also knew House D’Erinwa was amethyst, because D’Erinwa owned the Collectors, to whom Butterbelly paid his guild fees. Pretty much everyone assumed the Collectors were the ultimate authority behind the illegal Shadowdancers.
Kihrin knew many, if not most, of the guilds ultimately took their cues from a Royal House, but he’d never learned which ones.
The blue-eyed nobleman Morea had assumed was his relative was almost certainly one such member of royalty. However, Kihrin found himself at a loss to remember the specific house to which the villain owed fealty. Did blue mean he was a physicker? Kihrin had no idea which Royal Family controlled the Blue Houses, where one traded metal for healing.
For the first time in his life he wondered why his father, who made such a show of chiding him to practice and study—if he wanted to play before anyone important—had so thoroughly neglected his education in this regard.
Excerpted from The Ruin of Kings, copyright © 2018 by Jenn Lyons.