Prophecies unfold, legends turn real, and a war of mythical proportions endangers the realm in Ilana C. Myer’s epic fantasy The Poet King, continuing The Harp and Ring Sequence—available March 24th from Tor Books. Read chapter one here, and read an excerpt from chapter two below!
After a surprising upheaval, the nation of Tamryllin has a new ruler: Elissan Diar, who proclaims himself the first Poet King. Not all in court is happy with this regime change, as Rianna secretly schemes against him while she investigates a mysterious weapon he hides in the bowels of the palace.
Meanwhile, a civil war rages in a distant land, and former Court Poet Lin Amaristoth gathers allies old and new to return to Tamryllin in time to stop the coronation. For the Poet King’s ascension is connected with a darker, more sinister prophecy which threatens to unleash a battle out of legend unless Lin and her friends can stop it.
THhe winds were furious that night. Rain drove at the shutters. One shutter needed mending, for it kept up a persistent bang that every now and then, when he forgot, could make his heart race. For all that he’d been undisturbed here so far, the old Seer could not be sure he was safe. Each night, the groan and creak of the cottage settling its old bones brought fresh terrors. Each tap of a long-fingered branch against the window.
The idea that they’d come for him. Those boys with their lightless eyes.
Tales from Tamryllin made their way even to this valley. The world was not what it was.
His hands shook as he fed another log to the fire. As he took out the poker to stir the logs, watched the dance of sparks. Their hiss his company.
He was not that old, in truth. It was a feeling. To be an exile was to feel cast off, spent. With nothing to show for it. Here in this remote valley where there was little arable soil, the grass punctuated with shale patches. Walls of bramble tangled up to the scree. It was not desirable land.
He had never thought to return to it.
His cottage nestled in an alder grove. Lately when he walked among the skeletal autumn trees, he felt akin to them. He, too, had been stripped bare. And now was always cold.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
He froze. It was not the shutter. There was the cry of wind, the patter of rain. And another sound. The door.
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Fatalism gripped him. If they’d found him, so be it. Living in fear was no way to live. His friend would have said so. His more courageous friend, now dead.
The Seer opened the door.
Cold spilled in with the night. Then a voice. “Cai Hendin.” A woman. She lowered her hood and he saw an angular face; dark eyes. “I apologize for the hour. May I come in?”
The absurdity of her politeness as she stood in a dripping cloak, the winds pouring in, were eclipsed for him by relief. Hendin—he who had once been an Archmaster of Academy Isle—shut the door behind her. “Welcome, Seer,” he said formally. “My lady. I’d feared you were dead.”
She stood before him in a dark dress, her bag slung over her shoulder. She set it down, then handed him her wet cloak to spread beside the fire. She said, “You may well ask why I am here so late. Too late to save—our friend. Too late for everything.”
He felt it like a blow. “No,” he said. “No one knew what was coming.” She was silent. He couldn’t tell if she waited for him to go on, or was too overcome by her memories to speak. “I am glad you are here,” he added. At once, he felt self-conscious. That she saw how he lived. She, who had been the Court Poet. In this hut in a desolate valley. An inheritance from his family, allowed him by his brother. A far cry from the Archmaster he’d been. “I have,” he said hesitantly, “a little wine.”
Lin Amaristoth waved away the offer. He was struck by how she carried herself. A manner of standing that made her taller. But there was something strange, he saw, as she sat in one of his plain chairs by the fire. In the firelight the backs of her hands gleamed. Strands of gold, like veins in marble. She saw him look. Flung back her sleeve so he could see how the gold veins traveled up her arm. A shimmer of all her skin. “My new… adornment,” she said. “But that’s a tale for later on.” She spread her fingers towards the hearth to warm them. On her right hand, a dark gem that contained a profusion of colors.
There were tales of a gem like that—what it meant. And no Seer on record who had worn it.
He wanted to say, What are you?
“Cai,” she said. “I want to keep you out of danger. You were dear to Valanir Ocune. He’d want you safe.”
“You must think me a coward.”
“No.” She shrugged. “This—all that’s happened to me—” She looked at her hands. “If I could do it again, I don’t know what I’d do. A peaceful life… it is of value. He—our friend—would want that for you.”
“My friends are gone,” he said. Then didn’t know how to go on. Leafless alders beneath a grey sky. A peaceful life. He thought of Academy Isle, where the sound of the sea, no matter where you were, was never far. He’d come to think of it as a backdrop to his songs. To all music. In this valley the only sounds were of birds and creatures and, just now, of the wind. Sometimes the quiet of night woke him. Other times, his dreams.
Where was peace?
The Court Poet was silent. She looked at the fire. Then back to him, her eyes hard to read. “Lost friends,” she said. “We have that in common.” Her smile, this time, was wistful. “I’m not here to draw you into something. I am serious about that. I only want information.”
“I must know what you saw.” She leaned forward. “Everything you can tell me of Elissan Diar. Of that night. You know the one I mean.”
“It is… important?”
He had forgotten how dark Lin Amaristoth’s eyes could appear, in some lights. An inky black. Her next words nearly a hiss between her teeth. “More than anything.”
He’d been at the lakeside that night. How she knew that, or whether she only guessed, he didn’t know. By then, Manaia had already changed everything. The death of Valanir. Hendin could hardly bring himself to recall the sight: the corpse twisted on the floor of the Hall of Harps had borne no resemblance to his friend. Those staring eyes. An image among the dreams that woke him.
That same night, students were killed. Dorn Arrin, and the girl Julien Imara who’d tried to save him. Some enchantment had frozen Hendin in place alongside the other Archmasters, leaving him unable to move or speak. He’d watched as both were flung to the fires. The rite of Manaia made into something obscene, or else returned to what it had once been. Even he didn’t know.
Nothing could be the same for Cai Hendin after that. No longer could he regard himself as an Archmaster, a mentor to poets and keeper of lore at the Academy. Everything in this place had slipped away from him—he’d been unable even to protect his students. The children placed in his care.
He’d begun, at dawn when the enchanted fog in his brain lifted, to make ready for departure. He’d arranged it with the ferryman, signaling out to shore with a lamp from the tallest tower. Summoning a boat for the break of day.
That same night Hendin dreamed that his friend, his dear friend and mentor Seravan Myre, stood at the foot of his bed. In the dream he appeared as he had in life, without that terrible burnt mark around his eye. Unblemished, white robes a lustre in the dark. He looked down at Hendin where he lay. A face stern but kind. Though he did not speak, there was a meaning to his gaze that Hendin felt—whether by some otherworldly influence, or his own guilt.
He could not leave. If there was a chance to thwart Elissan Diar, he must try. Valanir Ocune had already given his life.
And Academy Isle was his home, wasn’t it? He’d been Archmaster for close on twenty years. This upstart, this monster of a man had come to take it from them. It could not stand.
But in the end Hendin had not known what he could do. As one day melted into the next he pretended to have forgotten about the night of the fires, as the rest seemed to have done. He took to the library, sifting the oldest texts he could find. Seeking some hint to what was happening, to what Elissan Diar meant to do. Any historical precedent for these meetings of the Chosen. And how one might put an end to it all.
But in studying the enchantments of Eivar, there was a problem. One that surfaced repeatedly—was doubtless what had driven Valanir Ocune to consult with the Magicians of the east. In the eldest days, knowledge had been transmitted orally, one generation of poets to the next. Not set into writing. It was only later, subsequent to the spell of Davyd Dreamweaver and the loss of the enchantments, that Seers had begun to expose some things to pen and paper. What they remembered. It began as fragments. These, in turn, were extrapolated upon by future generations. Nuggets of real knowledge intermixed with random verses, tincture recipes, anecdotes about weather anomalies and crops.
It was not what one might call disciplined, as methods went.
At times he came upon verses that seemed to hint at enchantments; that possessed a strangeness. But the symbolism in these was so obscure as to be no help at all.
The Seers of a bygone time had wanted to keep the enchantments secret. So they had done.
Therefore when the night of Elissan Diar’s ritual arrived, Hendin was no more informed than before of what was to happen. He only knew what he’d managed to overhear: That the night of the full moon would signify a great achievement. One Elissan Diar had set himself toward since the beginning.
That night when Elissan, the Archmasters who served him, and the Chosen went to the lake, Hendin followed. He kept some paces behind, hooded, under cover of hedges and trees. But Elissan did not seem to be trying to conceal his activities anymore. The procession carried lanterns, making it easy enough to follow. As if the time for secrets was over.
As if no one could stop them, so it didn’t matter.
They came to a halt in a willow grove by the lake. Trees formed a half-circle. Their roof of leaves made a natural opening to the sky. Through this opening, the moon, red as a dull gem. Water lapped at the silt of the bank, at reeds painted black by night.
No one spoke. The boys took their places in a circle. Elissan and the other Archmasters at the center. Even with an Archmaster’s cloak draping his shoulders, Elissan Diar was utterly unlike the other Archmasters, broad-shouldered and handsome. Beside him Etherell Lyr, a final-year student who had seemed, until now, something of an idler. Who was now nearly as much feared as Elissan Diar himself.
The boys were singing. Their melody arced unmistakably toward the Otherworld. Hendin shivered where he hid. Saw when the boys, Elissan Diar and the rest, fell into a kind of trance.
So he also saw when a man appeared, from nowhere, in the midst of the circle. A man aflame with green, lit from within. An Ifreet, Elissan had said. That arrogant Seer for the first time showing fear, his face sickly by the moon and that green glow.
The newcomer, a Magician, had opened a void to another world. A chill emanated from that place. Hendin had watched as with the animal strength of cowardice, Elissan Diar grabbed High Master Lian and flung him to the void. Heard the screams of the High Master as it closed.
After, Elissan and the Magician had done battle, as the Chosen backed away to allow them space and the moon cruised behind clouds, leaving the waters of the lake like black tar.
At the fire, Lin Amaristoth watched him. She gripped her upper arms, a bit too tightly. Outside, winds raged.
Hendin said, “This next part is hard to describe. They fought, for the most part in a manner unseen. I felt it. My mark alternated hot and cold—white hot, then like ice, then back again; and each time I felt faint. They grappled, and at first it seemed the stranger had got the better of Elissan. He injured him. A terrible wound, it seemed to me.”
“Tell me about this injury.”
“A sword appeared in the Magician’s hand. It was fashioned of light, like the green that suffused him. Its color brought to mind a poison. He plunged it through Elissan’s stomach so deep it came out the other side, out his back. Elissan screamed… and Kiara forgive me, I thought he was killed and was glad. So glad.” He held his head in his hands. “But as Elissan fell forward, down to the blade’s hilt, it brought him near his opponent. He got his hands on the Magician, even as he screamed. Set both hands to the sides of the Magician’s head. To his temples. Like this, as I am doing now. And a change came over the Magician’s face. He vanished.” The fire was a steady mutter. “I wonder, at times, what became of him.”
“He is dead.” Lin spoke to the flames. “What happened next?”
“The Chosen helped Elissan back to the castle. He seemed likely to die for some days. I allowed myself to hope. I could not believe I’d come to this—that I hoped for a man’s death. Especially with his daughter by his bed all that time, weeping.” Hendin let out a long sigh, remembering: his own self-loathing, suspense… and ultimately, disappointment. “But he recovered. I believe the Chosen were instrumental in this. They were about his bed each night. Made music in the dark that disturbed my dreams. Until one morning Elissan arrived at breakfast, wincing and pale, leaning on a stick, but very much alive. That’s when I knew it was over, truly over for my Academy.”
For a moment she was silent. They listened to the rain pattering against the shutters. She said, “So you left.”
“Archmaster,” she said, and was now looking him full in the eye. “You will ever be thus, no matter what anyone says. Archmaster and Seer. Thank you for your courage that night. What you saw—it may be of use. He has a weakness.”
He laughed, a bit shakily. “Every monster has at least one… as tales would have it. What do you mean to do?”
“Elissan Diar may be a monster. But that’s not why I’m here.” A flicker of warmth from her, though it seemed to struggle in its surfacing. “Dear Archmaster Hendin, I know the Academy has been your life… but it has done little to earn my loyalty.” His eyes slid to the black opal on her right hand. The same shape and size as an Academy ring. The stone was dull just now, its flame retreated. “What’s more,” she said, “Harald was not a good king. You and I—we know this. If you want to know what I believe, Cai Hendin, it’s that one king is seldom better or worse than the next. It is unwise to place such power in the hands of a man—any man. Harald was too weak to carry the burden. Elissan Diar is cruel. And how to guard against such men, if we cede all power to them?”
He felt too sad to be angry. It was true—the Academy had offered Lin Amaristoth nothing but resistance. Had turned against Valanir Ocune for making her Seer. And his own grievance against Elissan Diar… he knew that was what it was. A personal grievance, as he mourned the world he’d lost. But that mattered little for the future of a country. He saw ahead to that future—Elissan negotiating treaties, lowering some taxes, raising others. Truly, it would be the same as with any king. Except in one respect. “He has a great deal of power,” he said dully. “Elissan has yoked the enchantments for his own gain.”
“A Poet King,” she said, nodding. “It was inevitable. Now that the enchantments are back.”
“Yet you’re here,” he said. A sudden sharp look into her face. “Asking about his injuries. Weaknesses.”
“If Elissan Diar proposed to set himself up as king, and that was all, I would go away,” said Lin. “Would stay away. Make no mistake—he hurt me. Valanir Ocune and many, many more are dead because of him. A city destroyed, and more.” She shook her head, once, as if to put something aside. “But if I were to take a battle to him for my own gain, it would be destructive. To our people. It would solve nothing. So that was my thought, at first—to remain where I could be of use. With Kahishi and its wars.”
He knew only a little of those wars; what little had carried to him in the valley. He’d heard that the great palace in Majdara was destroyed. The king of Kahishi lived in exile, vied in a bitter war with the viziers. “You’ve been—involved?”
Her lips curled in an almost-smile. “You could say that. That is, again, another tale. But one evening a fortnight ago, King Eldakar received a pair of emissaries in his encampment. Magicians from Ramadus. They’d ridden in haste, killed numerous horses to get there— and that itself is unusual. Ramadians prize their horses. Archmaster—they were terrified. These are some of the world’s most learned Magicians. A prophecy had set them journeying in all haste to the other side of the world. What they saw in their Observatory—it could not wait.”
Hendin leaned forward, hands on knees. “What was it?”
She drew a breath. For the first time, he saw she was exhausted.
“There is a reason Elissan Diar chose to hold his coronation at the winter solstice. A time when the Otherworld is near to us. He means to tap into something.” She shook her head. “The prophecy is clouded. But even as far off as Ramadus, they are afraid.”
Later, Cai Hendin sat alone by the fire. He’d offered Lin his bed in the next room and she’d accepted, promising to be gone by morning. A curtained doorway separated the front of the cottage from the back, but even through that thin cloth, shot through with holes, there was no sound. The Court Poet had either fallen into silent sleep, or lay wakeful to the sounds of the storm that at last were dwindling.
Hendin knew he wouldn’t sleep. Not after what she’d told him. It was too much to hold—too tangled a knot of feeling. One of which, to his amazement, was joy.
Tears still tracked down his cheeks. He had begun to weep when Lin told him the news, and now, still, could not make himself stop.
Julien Imara, the girl who had gone to the flames at Manaia, was alive.
He’d been so sure he’d watched her die. And Dorn Arrin…
“There is a possibility—I’d say, near a certainty—that if the girl survived, the boy did, too,” Lin had said. She had risen to her feet. “How this must have weighed upon you. I don’t know where they are now… if they are safe. But Julien bears the mark of Valanir Ocune upon her. He must have given it to her before he died. It gave her the power to take herself elsewhere—and you say she held fast to him, as he was thrown.”
“There were no bodies, at the end,” he said, eyes filling—as much from shock as from memory. “Nothing. I searched what was left of the bonfires the next morning.”
“No bodies.” A chill came into her voice. Or no. In the way she bent in on herself, he saw sadness. “Oh yes. That can, at times, be a sign of magic. Not always to the good. But this time… this time, Archmaster Hendin, it is good news.”
So into the small hours, he sat at the fire and wept.
At least one thing was left. One thing that was good.
In the moments after she told him, Cai was so overcome that he almost forgot to ask what he’d meant to ask. She had gathered up her things, was a dark figure moving toward the curtained doorway, by the time he remembered.
“Lady,” he said.
Looking weary, she turned. “What is it?”
“Forgive me,” he said. “But you said… I would very much like to know… how you came by the gold markings. What wrought this change.”
She went still. A long pause before she spoke. “I did say I’d tell you. But now that I am facing you, speaking of it…” She looked away from him now, past him. Cai Hendin had the sensation that Lin Amaristoth was trying to make someone understand her, in each word she formed; but that she spoke to someone else—or wished she did. “It may not matter how it came about. What I puzzle over, more than anything, is what it means. Sometimes I think I am not entirely of this world, nor another.” She smiled. “As perhaps has been true all my life.”
Excerpted from The Poet King, copyright 2019 by Ilana C. Meyer