The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons

The Ruin of Kings by Jenn Lyons: Chapter 17

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 has released the first 17 chapters leading up to the book’s release! This is our final installment, but don’t despair—the full novel publishes tomorrow, February 5th! Plus you can head on over to Reading The Ruin of Kings for some fresh commentary our resident Wheel of Time expert, Leigh Butler.

Our journey continues…

 

17: Waking the Old Man
(Kihrin’s story)

 

We swung round the fang at top speed, the ship tilting at an angle she was never built to endure, racing at a speed she was never meant to sustain. Maybe a sleeker warship could’ve handled the strain, but The Misery was a clunky slaver. She groaned, and I wondered if she would break up before we reached the real hazards, even with Tyentso and Khaemezra’s magic. We spun twice around the whirlpool before it spat us out. The ship’s planking and mast screamed as another fang formed on our port side, spinning us in the opposite direction like a horse’s rider changing leads.

I bumped against Captain Juval’s first mate Delon while crossing the deck. Walking on a boat pitching like a velvet girl in bed was hard work. Hardly my fault if I had an attack of clumsiness right next to him, right?

“Gods be damned, boy!” Delon cursed at me.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Fool boy. Go hang onto something!” Delon pulled himself up to the wheel deck. I grinned and bounced the keys to the slave hold in my hand as I watched him go.

Maybe we wouldn’t make it, but I’d be damned if I would let all those slaves die trapped in tiny cages like fish in a net.

This fang wasn’t any smoother than the last, but we were traveling faster than before and The Misery wasn’t happy about it. The deck bucked under my feet. The mast began to warp.

“Come on, Taja, keep her together,” I muttered. “And keep Delon from looking this way.”

I knelt on the deck. My hands were cold as I unlocked the massive iron padlock that held shut the grating hold-door.

The rest was easy. The crew of The Misery were focused on impending doom and the spinning vortex. None of them had any concentration to waste on a teenage boy roaming through the hold, unlocking cages. The sound of our crazy mad spinning muffled the reactions of the slaves inside. Some of them stared at me in disbelief. A depressing majority shied away from the door, as if they thought this must be some kind of trap. I shouted at them to get out, but I doubt any understood me, assuming they heard me over The Misery’s screams.

The real test wasn’t the slave hold, but the rowing galley. Every slave there was shackled to their bench. Every slave there was individually chained. The ship’s crew had taken in the oars, just as they’d taken down the sails—both interfered with the sharp turns The Misery needed to make to stay afloat. They’d left the slaves down there though. In the months I had been a guest of The Misery’s delightful rowing galley, I had only left my bench at the very end, when they had pulled me out to be interrogated, whipped, and gaeshed.

I shivered from cold in the small passage leading to the rower’s galley. The heavy iron door creaked as I opened it. Inside, slaves clutched at their oars in the dim light. They had no knowledge of what terror faced them—simply the certainty it would be awful.

I was surprised to see Magoq, the galley master who had so freely whipped and abused any rower who dared lag in their pace, curled fetal in a corner. The hulking giant was crying, shaking.

I had told myself I’d kill Magoq. I’d meant to do it, but I couldn’t bring myself to murder the man when he was grabbing his knees, all but soiling himself in terror. I ignored him as I unlocked the people at their benches. The wind outside howled, or we were just moving at terrific speeds, or both, and I found it hard to stand upright against that momentum. The people chained to their benches could barely stand either. Others slipped in the effluvia of months spent shackled in the ship’s bowels. We didn’t say a word to each other. It wouldn’t have mattered if we had: the roar of wind snatched away any conversation before it could be deciphered.

As I finished unlocking the men, I realized the cold was neither fear nor the weather. I reached for the Stone of Shackles with a nervous hand. I might as well have been feeling a block of ice. One of the men gestured, giving me the warning I needed as Delon swung a cutlass through the space where I’d stood a moment before.

Delon shouted at me, but I couldn’t make out the words. He wasn’t happy with me. That was clear enough.

He swung at me again, and as he did, the ship shifted violently. The room darkened as something massive flashed by the portholes. Delon’s cutlass swung far off the mark and embedded itself in one of the wooden benches. There was noise and shuffling and (although I thought it hard to know for sure) the sound of screaming.

Something moved away from the porthole. A tiny wedge of light illuminated the room. I saw one of the galley rowers had picked up his chains and wrapped the metal links around Delon’s throat.

Funny thing. Their leg strength might be atrophied by disuse, but a galley rower’s upper body strength is nothing to mock. Few of the “permanent” slaves on board The Misery had any love for Delon. They hated him more than they hated Magoq.

I didn’t stay to see what they’d do with him. I’d recognized the object that had briefly covered up the porthole, and knew we were in serious trouble.

It was a tentacle.

As I ran back on deck, I noticed the tentacles wrapped around The Misery didn’t have suction cups. Not a one. Instead, they had teeth. Sharp, angry, curved points of bone or chitin or some other razor-sharp material that cut into wood like khorechalit axes.

I mention this detail because, like axes, those tentacles did no favors to the ship’s integrity as they wrapped around mast and hull.

Under other circumstances, I’m sure the sailors would’ve attacked those tentacles with sword and harpoon. Instead, they grabbed onto the railings and whimpered with all their might. The ship tilted precipitously. I looked up, thinking we must be passing close to a particularly nasty fang.

We weren’t: this was the Throat.

The ship tilted so far over that half the sky was now a spinning vortex. The gyre was a mile wide and spun into a fathomless abyss, probably opened up into Hell itself.

“Oh Taja,” I whispered.

We were spinning around too fast, and it appeared that at any second we would lose our balance and fall screaming into the deep. The wind tore at me as if it wanted to toss me in personally.

I dragged myself along, holding on to ropes as I pulled myself up to the main deck. Teraeth balanced on the crux of the wheel, one foot against the main post, the other foot steering. He had one hand behind his back, and held the other one up in the air, counting upward. He looked no more bothered by the wind or the whirlpool than a fish is bothered by

Teraeth was getting on my nerves.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed,” I shouted over the noise. “But a kraken’s hanging off the back of the ship!”

He nodded. “She’s catching a ride. She knows the whirlpool would tear her apart. She thinks her only chance is to ride it out with us!”

“She knows? She THINKS?”

“Of course. She is the daughter of a goddess!”

“I was trying to forget that.” I looked around. Captain Juval was pressed against the wall of the stairwell down to the crew quarters. I thought he might have been praying. “Can we make it?”

“Three.” He counted and held up another finger.

“There’s got to be something we can do. We come out of this vortex and that kraken’s going to tear us apart!”

“Sing.”

“WHAT?” I screamed.

“That auctioneer said you were trained as a musician.” Teraeth shouted. “So sing. Sing as though your life depends on it!”

“How’s that going to help?”

“Four!” Teraeth raised another finger.

The ship was spinning faster, and rode higher around the edge. At some point, it would spit us back out. While that should have been reassuring, I knew the rocky shoals of the Desolation waited for us to the north. If we didn’t exit perfectly we’d be smashed to kindling.

“WHY am I singing?”

“You’ll wake the Old Man.”

“I thought that was a BAD thing?”

“There’s always the chance you’ll amuse him. So sing already!”

“Nobody can hear me! I’m shouting and I can barely hear me.”

“He’ll hear you. SING!” Teraeth held up his entire fist. “FIVE!”

I’d sung in strange situations back at the Shattered Veil, but usually it was a distraction from more prurient goings on, not from imminent threat of death. And the stone around my neck was hot, scalding hot.

I picked out the first song that came to mind, because it was one of the last I’d performed in public. It felt strange to sing it without the harp Valathea to accompany me.

Let me tell you a tale of
Four brothers strong,
Red, yellow, violet, and indigo,
To whom all the land and
Sea once did belong.
Red, yellow, violet, and indigo…

“Perfect.” Teraeth shouted. “Keep singing! Six! NOW!”

As if it was following Teraeth’s instructions, the Maw flung The Misery far from the opening. I’ve never traveled so fast, so dizzyingly, sickeningly fast, in my entire life. We blasted out of the Maw with nauseating speed. As soon as we’d cleared the vortex, I heard the screams of sailors as the kraken moved.

One day they saw the veils
Of the same lady fair
Red, yellow, violet, and indigo
And each one did claim
Her hand would be theirs.
Red, yellow, violet, and indigo…

We shot toward the rocks of the Desolation, missing being torn apart by the slimmest of margins. Unfortunately we headed toward a small rocky island that would be large enough and hard enough to do the job anyway.

The island opened its eyes. The air trapped in my throat as I saw it. Teraeth whispered in a furious voice, “Keep singing!”

I swallowed my fear and continued the song.

Let go of your claim!
They yelled at their brothers,
Red, yellow, violet, and indigo
And each screamed back,
She will never be another’s!
Red, yellow, violet, and indigo…

“Gods,” I heard Juval say as he pulled himself on deck. “What have you—? That—We’ve got to turn back.”

“There’s no turning back,” Teraeth said. “We run and the Old Man will chase. He likes it when his prey runs.”

As I sang, the island uncurled itself and shook off the accumulated dirt and dust of years asleep. The head was a long and sinuous shape, twisting and joining with a mass of muscle, sinew, and dull mottled scales. The wings, when spread, seemed like they might black out all the sky.

“I’ll take my chances with the kraken.” Juval screamed. “That we can fight. That’s a gods-be-damned DRAGON you’re running us into!”

And so it was.

The dragon was sooty black, the color of thick coal ash. The cracks under its scales pulsed and glowed as if those scaly plates barely contained an inferno.

No forge glowed hotter than its eyes.

No story I’d heard of a dragon—of how big they are, how fierce, how deadly, how terrifying—did justice to the reality. This creature would decimate armies. No lone idiot riding a horse and carrying a spear ever stood a chance.

So they raised up their flags
And they readied for war
Red, yellow, violet, and indigo
The battle was grim and
The fields filled with gore
Red, yellow, violet, and indigo
And when it was done
Every mother was in tears
Red, yellow, violet, and indigo…

“Stand back, Captain, or you won’t live to see if we survive this.” Teraeth’s voice was calm, smooth, and threatening.

I didn’t look at them. What could I do? I sang. I heard them arguing behind me, and behind that, the noise of crew members screaming as they fought the kraken. It was cacophony on a grand scale, and I couldn’t believe the dragon could distinguish the sources of all that noise.

The dragon opened its mouth. At first, I heard nothing, but then the rumbling roar hit me. Ripples spread out over the water, rocks shattered and split from the islands, the very wood of The Misery throbbed in sympathy. Clouds scuttled across the sky as if trying to escape the creature. Wispy vapors fell away from its mouth: yellow, sulfurous, heavier than smoke. The creature stared at The Misery ,still speeding toward it, and I couldn’t fight off the ugly certainty that the dragon stared directly at me.

A crescendo of screaming sounded behind me, and someone shouted, “My god! It’s on top of the ship!” You can give credit to the dragon that I didn’t look. The dragon had me. You cannot turn away from such a creature. It will either vanish or it will destroy you.

Teraeth must’ve looked away though, and Juval must’ve thought he had an opening. I really don’t know what the Captain was thinking.

I guess he was acting from blind panic.

I heard a scuffle, a grunting noise, the slick scrape of metal. A second later, I heard the unmistakable, unforgettable sound of blood gurgling from a ripped throat.

“Idiot,” Teraeth muttered.

Then the lady fair walked over
The carnage of bloody fears
Red, yellow, violet, and indigo
She said, None of you I’ll have!
My love you do betray
Red, yellow, violet, and indigo…

The dragon’s keening changed in pitch. I felt the dragon’s song against the surface of my skin, the echo in my eardrums, the vibration in my bones. It was a physical shock, a tangible ecstasy.

He was singing. The dragon was singing with me.

Then she flew up to the sky
And she’s there to this day
Red, yellow, violet, and indigo…

Behind me, more shouts, more screams. The kraken scattered men on the deck as she tried to rip open the hold. There was a loud cracking sound, like a giant snapping trees for firewood.

And on a clear night you can
Still see her veils wave—

“Thaena!” Teraeth screamed. He tackled me as the mast fell right across where I’d been standing.

And, since I’ve never mastered the trick of singing with the wind knocked out of me, I stopped.

The dragon didn’t like that at all.

He launched himself into air, screaming with ear-shattering rage, gigantic wings spread wide against the glaring sun. That titanic creature crossed the distance to the ship in less than three seconds. I’d underestimated his size. He might’ve fit in the Great Arena in the Capital City, but only if he tucked himself up and rolled into a ball like a house cat.

The Old Man glided over us, his shadow a silken cloak sweeping over the ship. He smelled of sulfur and ash, the hot stench of the furnace and melting iron. As he passed, he idly reached out with a talon and plucked up the kraken still clinging to the deck. Great chunks of wood went with her. The dragon tossed the Daughter of Laaka into the air like a ball of string and breathed glowing hot ash at her.

I’m sure you’ve heard stories of dragons breathing fire, but believe me when I say what this one did was worse. That was not fire as you find in a kitchen or forge, not the sort of fire that happens when you rub two sticks together, or even the magic flame sorcerers conjure. This was all the ashes of a furnace, of a thousand furnaces, heated to iron melting white-hot strength, and blasted out at typhoon velocity. The heat melted, the ash scoured, and the glowing cloud left no air to breathe.

She never stood a chance.

The dragon gulped down the charred mass of twisted flesh before it could fall back to the sea.

Then he banked and came back around to deal with us.

Teraeth stood up. So did I. The ship started to list, and worse still, Khaemezra and Tyentso came up on deck. I didn’t think the two magi would show themselves unless the situation was truly grim, and dealing with the dragon had become more important than keeping the ship afloat.

“Oh god. Relos Var,” I whispered. “Relos Var will come now.”

“We’re close to the island. If we can reach it, we’ll be safe. It’s consecrated to Thaena; he won’t dare show himself at one of the seats of her power.”

“Will singing again help?”

“Probably not. Let’s just hope you put him in a good mood.”

“What happens if he’s in a good mood?”

“He flies away.”

“And if he’s in a bad mood?”

“He turns us all to cinders for daring to wake him from his nap.”

I looked around. “If he’s going to destroy us, he’d better hurry. The ship’s sinking.” Ripping away the kraken had opened gaps in the hull. The ship was taking on water.

Teraeth dragged his eyes away from the approaching dragon and looked at where The Misery was beginning to go down. “Oh hell.”

“I want him.”

The dragon’s voice was loud and echoing, yet not an animal sound. The dragon didn’t speak with the reptilian hiss I expected, but a grinding elemental noise that mimicked speech.

“Give him to me and I will save your craft.”

“Yeah, but will you promise to feed me every day and give me lots of care and attention?” I muttered.

“He likes you. That’s good,” Teraeth said.

“Yeah, I feel really loved.” I looked toward the back of the ship. “Taja, I hope those people can swim.” I leaned backward to keep my balance.

Juval’s body slid slowly across the planks. Tyentso also began to slip. Teraeth reached across and grabbed her by the arm, pulling her tight against him for balance. She gave him an odd look, but didn’t protest.

“You may not have him. He is important to me,” Khaemezra said. I stared at her, then back at the dragon. Her voice—

“I won’t hurt him, Mother.”

“I said no.”

I looked at Teraeth and mouthed, “Mother?”

The assassin’s mouth twitched. “Everyone calls her that,” he said.

I shook my head. It wasn’t just a figure of speech. Not with that voice. I’d never heard a voice like Khaemezra’s—until I’d heard a dragon speak.

“Give him to me or I will—”

But their haggling had taken too long. The Misery had suffered too much in our flight. A second crack, much louder, sounded as the center of the ship splintered and broke in half. The bottom half slid into the ocean. The top half fell backward to smack against the water. I felt a moment’s sensation of weightlessness as the deck dropped from under me.

The water rushed over my head. Sound vanished, then returned as a dull roar. As the ship sank the vast pull of current sucked me down, trapping me in spite of my efforts to swim free. No matter how hard I tried to swim up, the light faded, a dim glow drawing distant.

The water felt warmer than I expected, but perhaps that was just glowing heat from the stone around my neck.

My body wrenched upward as a gigantic claw plowed through the sea. Enormous talons formed a cage around my body. The last moments I remember were the sharp scent of lightning and ocean water, and the colossal eye of a gigantic black dragon, scales dripping with kelp, gazing at me. What I remember most vividly was that the eye was not the yellow glow of the Old Man’s, but blue. Or maybe green.

Or maybe no color at all, except by reflection.

 

Excerpted from The Ruin of Kings, copyright © 2018 by Jenn Lyons.

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