Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson

Read Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson: Prologue and Chapter One

On November 17, 2020, The Stormlight Archive saga continues in Rhythm of War, the eagerly awaited fourth volume in Brandon Sanderson’s #1 New York Times bestselling fantasy series.

Tor.com is serializing the new book from now until release date! A new chapter or two will go live every Tuesday at 9 AM ET.

Every installment is collected here in the Rhythm of War index.

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Want to catch up on The Stormlight Archive? Check out our Explaining The Stormlight Archive series!


 

 

Prologue: To Pretend

Seven Years Ago

Of course the Parshendi wanted to play their drums.

Of course Gavilar had told them they could.

And of course he hadn’t thought to warn Navani.

“Have you seen the size of those instruments?” Maratham said‚ running her hands through her black hair. “Where will we put them? And we’re already at capacity after your husband invited all the foreign dignitaries. We can’t—”

“We’ll set up a more exclusive feast in the upper ballroom,” Navani said, maintaining a calm demeanor, “and put the drums there, with the king’s table.”

Everyone else in the kitchens was close to panicking, assistant cooks running one direction or another, pots banging, anticipationspren shooting up from the ground like streamers. Gavilar had invited not only the highprinces, but their relatives. And every highlord in the city. And he wanted a double-sized Beggar’s Feast. And now… drums?

“We’ve already put everyone to work in the lower feast hall!” Maratham cried. “I don’t have the staff to set up—”

“There are twice as many soldiers as usual loitering around the palace tonight,” Navani said. “We’ll have them help you set up.” Posting extra guards, making a show of force? Gavilar could always be counted on to do that.

For everything else, he had Navani.

“Could work, yes,” Maratham said. “Good to put the louts to work rather than having them underfoot. We have two main feasts, then? All right. Deep breaths.” The short palace organizer scuttled away, narrowly avoiding an apprentice cook carrying a large bowl of steaming shellfish.

Navani stepped aside to let the cook pass. The man nodded in thanks; the staff had long since stopped being nervous when she entered the kitchens. She’d made it clear to them that doing their jobs efficiently was recognition enough.

Despite the underlying tension, they seemed to have things well in hand now—though there had been a scare earlier when they’d found worms in three barrels of grain. Thankfully, Brightlord Amaram had stores for his men, and Navani had been able to pry them out of his grip. For now, with the extra cooks they’d borrowed from the monastery, they might actually be able to feed all the people Gavilar had invited.

I’ll have to give instructions on who is to be seated in which feast room, she thought, slipping out of the kitchens and into the palace gardens. And leave some extra space in both. Who knows who else might show up with an invitation?

She hiked up through the gardens toward the side doors of the palace. She’d be less in the way—and wouldn’t have to dodge servants—if she took this path. As she walked, she scanned to make certain all the lanterns were in place. Though the sun hadn’t yet set, she wanted the Kholinar palace to shine brightly tonight.

Wait. Was that Aesudan—her daughter-in-law, Elhokar’s wife—standing near the fountains? She was supposed to be greeting guests inside. The slender woman wore her long hair in a bun lit by a gemstone of each shade. All those colors were gaudy together—Navani preferred a few simple stones themed to one color—but it did make Aesudan stand out as she chatted with two elderly ardents.

Storms bright and brash… that was Rushur Kris, the artist and master artifabrian. When had he arrived? Who had invited him? He was holding a small box with a flower painted on it. Could that be… one of his new fabrials?

Navani felt drawn toward the group, all other thoughts fleeing her mind. How had he made the heating fabrial, making the temperature vary? She’d seen drawings, but to talk to the master artist himself…

Aesudan saw Navani and smiled brightly. The joy seemed genuine, which was unusual—at least when directed at Navani. She tried not to take Aesudan’s general sourness toward her as a personal affront; it was the prerogative of every woman to feel threatened by her mother-inlaw. Particularly when the girl was so obviously lacking in talents.

Navani smiled at her in turn, trying to enter the conversation and get a better look at that box. Aesudan, however, took Navani by the arm. “Mother! I had completely forgotten about our appointment. I’m so fickle sometimes. Terribly sorry, Ardent Kris, but I must make a hasty exit.”

Aesudan tugged Navani—forcefully—back through the gardens toward the kitchens. “Thank Kelek you showed up, Mother. That man is the most dreadful bore.”

“Bore?” Navani said, twisting to gaze over her shoulder. “He was talking about…”

“Gemstones. And other gemstones. And spren and boxes of spren, and storms! You’d think he would understand. I have important people to meet. The wives of highprinces, the best generals in the land, all come to gawk at the wild parshmen. Then I get stuck in the gardens talking to ardents? Your son abandoned me there, I’ll have you know. When I find that man…”

Navani extricated herself from Aesudan’s grip. “Someone should entertain those ardents. Why are they here?”

“Don’t ask me,” Aesudan said. “Gavilar wanted them for something, but he made Elhokar entertain them. Poor manners, that is. Honestly!”

Gavilar had invited one of the world’s most prominent artifabrians to visit Kholinar, and he hadn’t bothered to tell Navani? Emotion stirred deep inside her, a fury she kept carefully penned and locked away. That man. That storming man. How… how could he…

Angerspren, like boiling blood, began to well up in a small pool at her feet. Calm, Navani, the rational side of her mind said. Maybe he intends to introduce the ardent to you as a gift. She banished the anger with effort.

“Brightness!” a voice called from the kitchens. “Brightness Navani! Oh, please! We have a problem.”

“Aesudan,” Navani said, her eyes still on the ardent, who was now slowly walking toward the monastery. “Could you help the kitchens with whatever they need? I’d like to…”

But Aesudan was already hurrying off toward another group in the gardens, one attended by several powerful highlord generals. Navani took a deep breath and shoved down another stab of frustration. Aesudan claimed to care about propriety and manners, but she’d insert herself into a conversation between men without bringing her husband along as an excuse.

“Brightness!” the cook called again, waving to her.

Navani took one last look at the ardent, then set her jaw and hurried to the kitchens, careful not to catch her skirt on the ornamental shalebark. “What now?”

“Wine,” the cook said. “We’re out of both the Clavendah and the Ruby Bench.”

“How?” she said. “We have reserves…” She shared a glance with the cook, and the answer was evident. Dalinar had found their wine store again. He’d grown quite ingenious at secretly draining the barrels for him and his friends. She wished he’d dedicate half as much attention to the kingdom’s needs.

“I have a private store,” Navani said, pulling her notebook from her pocket. She gripped it in her safehand through her sleeve as she scribbled a note. “I keep it in the monastery with Sister Talanah. Show her this and she’ll give you access.”

“Thank you, Brightness,” the cook said, taking the note. Before the man was out the door, Navani spotted the house steward—a white-bearded man with too many rings on his fingers—hovering in the stairwell to the palace proper. He was fidgeting with the rings on his left hand. Bother.

“What is it?” she asked, striding over.

“Highlord Rine Hatham has arrived, and is asking about his audience with the king. You remember, His Majesty promised to talk with Rine tonight about—”

“About the border dispute and the misdrawn maps, yes,” Navani said, sighing. “And where is my husband?”

“Unclear, Brightness,” the steward said. “He was last seen with Brightlord Amaram and some of those… uncommon figures.”

That was the term the palace staff used for Gavilar’s new friends, the ones who seemed to arrive without warning or announcement, and who rarely gave their names.

Navani ground her teeth, thinking through the places Gavilar might have gone. He would be angry if she interrupted him. Well, good. He should be seeing to his guests, rather than assuming she’d handle everything and everyone.

Unfortunately, at the moment she… well, she would have to handle everything and everyone.

She let the anxious steward lead her up to the grand entryway, where guests were being entertained with music, drink, and poetry while the feast was prepared. Others were escorted by master-servants to view the Parshendi, the night’s true novelty. It wasn’t every day the king of Alethkar signed a treaty with a group of mysterious parshmen who could talk.

She extended her apologies to Highlord Rine for Gavilar’s absence, offering to review the maps herself. After that, she was stopped by a line of impatient men and women brought to the palace by the promise of an audience with the king.

Navani assured the lighteyes their concerns were being heard. She promised to look into injustices. She soothed the crumpled feelings of those who thought a personal invitation from the king meant they’d actually get to see him—a rare privilege these days, unless you were one of the “uncommon figures.”

Guests were still showing up, of course. Ones who weren’t on the updated list an annoyed Gavilar had provided for her earlier that day.

Vev’s golden keys! Navani forcibly painted on an amicable face for the guests. She smiled, she laughed, she waved. Using the reminders and lists she kept in her notebook, she asked after families, new births, and favorite axehounds. She inquired about trade situations, took notes on which lighteyes seemed to be avoiding others. In short, she acted like a queen.

It was emotionally taxing work, but it was her duty. Perhaps someday she’d be able to spend her days tinkering with fabrials and pretending she was a scholar. Today, she’d do her job—though a part of her felt like an impostor. However prestigious her ancient lineage might be, her anxiety whispered that she was really just a backwater country girl wearing someone else’s clothing.

Those insecurities had grown stronger lately. Calm. Calm. There was no room for that sort of thinking. She rounded the room, pleased to note that Aesudan had found Elhokar and was chatting with him for once—rather than other men. Elhokar did look happy presiding over the pre-feast in his father’s absence. Adolin and Renarin were there in stiff uniforms—the former delighting a small group of young women, the latter appearing gangly and awkward as he stood by his brother.

And… there was Dalinar. Standing tall. Somehow taller than any man in the room. He wasn’t drunk yet, and people orbited him like they might a fire on a cold night—needing to be close, but fearing the true heat of his presence. Those haunted eyes of his, simmering with passion.

Storms alight. She excused herself and made a brief exit up the steps to where she wouldn’t feel so warm. It was a bad idea to leave; they were lacking a king, and questions were bound to arise if the queen vanished too. Yet surely everyone could get on without her for a short time. Besides, up here she could check one of Gavilar’s hiding places.

She wound her way through the dungeonlike hallways, passing Parshendi carrying drums nearby, speaking a language she did not understand. Why couldn’t this place have a little more natural light up here, a few more windows? She’d brought the matter up with Gavilar, but he liked it this way. It gave him more places to hide.

There, she thought, stopping at an intersection. Voices.

“…Being able to bring them back and forth from Braize doesn’t mean anything,” one said. “It’s too close to be a relevant distance.”

“It was impossible only a few short years ago,” said a deep, powerful voice. Gavilar. “This is proof. The Connection is not severed, and the box allows for travel. Not yet as far as you’d like, but we must start the journey somewhere.”

Navani peered around the corner. She could see a door at the end of the short hallway ahead, cracked open, letting the voices leak out. Yes, Gavilar was having a meeting right where she’d expected: in her study. It was a cozy little room with a nice window, tucked away in the corner of the second floor. A place she rarely had time to visit, but where people were unlikely to search for Gavilar.

She inched up to peek in through the cracked door. Gavilar Kholin had a presence big enough to fill a room all by himself. He wore a beard, but instead of being unfashionable on him, it was… classic. Like a painting come to life, a representation of old Alethkar. Some had thought he might start a trend, but few were able to pull off the look.

Beyond that, there was an air of… distortion around Gavilar. Nothing supernatural or nonsensical. It was just that… well, you accepted that Gavilar could do whatever he wanted, in defiance of any tradition or logic. For him, it would work out. It always did.

The king was speaking with two men that Navani vaguely recognized. A tall Makabaki man with a birthmark on his cheek and a shorter Vorin man with a round face and a small nose. They’d been called ambassadors from the West, but no kingdom had been given for their home.

The Makabaki one leaned against the bookcase, his arms folded, his face completely expressionless. The Vorin man wrung his hands, reminding Navani of the palace steward, though this man seemed much younger. Somewhere… in his twenties? Maybe his thirties? No, he could be older.

On the table between Gavilar and the men lay a group of spheres. Navani’s breath caught as she saw them. They were arrayed in a variety of colors and brightness, but several seemed strangely off. They glowed with an inverse of light, as if they were little pits of violet darkness, sucking in the color around them.

She’d never seen anything like them before, but gemstones with spren trapped inside could have all kinds of odd appearances and effects. Those spheres… they must be meant for fabrials. What was Gavilar doing with spheres, strange light, and distinguished artifabrians? And why wouldn’t he talk to her about—

Gavilar suddenly stood up straight and glanced toward the doorway, though Navani hadn’t made any sound. Their eyes met. So she pushed open the door as if she had been on her way in. She wasn’t spying; she was queen of this palace. She could go where she wished, particularly her own study.

“Husband,” she said. “There are guests missing you at the gathering. You seem to have lost track of time.”

“Gentlemen,” Gavilar said to the two ambassadors, “I will need to excuse myself.”

The nervous Vorin man ran his hand through his wispy hair. “I want to know more of the project, Gavilar. Plus, you need to know that another of us is here tonight. I spotted her handiwork earlier.”

“I have a meeting shortly with Meridas and the others,” Gavilar said. “They should have more information for me. We can speak again after that.”

“No,” the Makabaki man said, his voice sharp. “I doubt we shall.”

“There’s more here, Nale!” the Vorin man said, though he followed as his friend left. “This is important! I want out. This is the only way…”

“What was that about?” Navani asked as Gavilar closed the door. “Those are no ambassadors. Who are they really?”

Gavilar did not answer. With deliberate motions, he began plucking the spheres off the table and placing them into a pouch.

Navani darted forward and snatched one. “What are these? How did you get spheres that glow like this? Does this have to do with the artifabrians you’ve invited here?” She looked to him, waiting for some kind of answer, some explanation.

Instead, he held out his hand for her sphere. “This does not concern you, Navani. Return to the feast.”

She closed her hand around the sphere. “So I can continue to cover for you? Did you promise Highlord Rine you’d mediate his dispute tonight of all times? Do you know how many people are expecting you? And did you say you have another meeting to go to now, before the feast begins? Are you simply going to ignore our guests?”

“Do you know,” he said softly, “how tired I grow of your constant questions, woman?”

“Perhaps try answering one or two, then. It’d be a novel experience, treating your wife like a human being—rather than like a machine built to count the days of the week for you.”

He wagged his hand, demanding the sphere.

Instinctively she gripped it tighter. “Why? Why do you continue to shut me out? Please, just tell me.”

“I deal in secrets you could not handle, Navani. If you knew the scope of what I’ve begun…”

She frowned. The scope of what? He’d already conquered Alethkar. He’d united the highprinces. Was this about how he had turned his eyes toward the Unclaimed Hills? Surely settling a patch of wildlands—populated by nothing more than the odd tribe of parshmen—was nothing compared to what he’d already accomplished.

He took her hand, forced apart her fingers, and removed the sphere. She didn’t fight him; he would not react well. He had never used his strength against her, not in that way, but there had been words. Comments. Threats.

He took the strange transfixing sphere and stashed it in the pouch with the others. He pulled the pouch tight with a taut snap of finality, then tucked it into his pocket.

“You’re punishing me, aren’t you?” Navani demanded. “You know my love of fabrials. You taunt me specifically because you know it will hurt.”

“Perhaps,” Gavilar said, “you will learn to consider before you speak, Navani. Perhaps you will learn the dangerous price of rumors.”

This again? she thought. “Nothing happened, Gavilar.”

“Do you think I care?” Gavilar said. “Do you think the court cares? To them, lies are as good as facts.”

That was true, she realized. Gavilar didn’t care if she’d been unfaithful to him—and she hadn’t. But the things she’d said had started rumors, difficult to smother.

All Gavilar cared about was his legacy. He wanted to be known as a great king, a great leader. That drive had always pushed him, but it was growing into something else lately. He kept asking: Would he be remembered as Alethkar’s greatest king? Could he compete with his ancestors, men such as the Sunmaker?

If a king’s court thought he couldn’t control his own wife, wouldn’t that stain his legacy? What good was a kingdom if Gavilar knew that his wife secretly loved his brother? In this, Navani represented a chip in the marble of his all-important legacy.

“Speak to your daughter,” Gavilar said, turning toward the door. “I believe I have managed to soothe Amaram’s pride. He might take her back, and her time is running out. Few other suitors will consider her; I’ll likely need to pay half the kingdom to get rid of the girl if she denies Meridas again.”

Navani sniffed. “You speak to her. If what you want is so important, maybe you could do it yourself for once. Besides, I don’t care for Amaram. Jasnah can do better.”

He froze, then looked back and spoke in a low, quiet voice. “Jasnah will marry Amaram, as I have instructed her. She will put aside this fancy of becoming famous by denying the church. Her arrogance stains the reputation of the entire family.”

Navani stepped forward and let her voice grow as cold as his. “You realize that girl still loves you, Gavilar. They all do. Elhokar, Dalinar, the boys… they worship you. Are you sure you want to reveal to them what you truly are? They are your legacy. Treat them with care. They will define how you are remembered.”

“Greatness will define me, Navani. No mediocre effort by someone like Dalinar or my son could undermine that—and I personally doubt Elhokar could rise to even mediocre.”

“And what about me?” she said. “I could write your history. Your life. Whatever you think you’ve done, whatever you think you’ve accomplished… that’s ephemeral, Gavilar. Words on the page define men to future generations. You spurn me, but I have a grip on what you cherish most. Push me too far, and I will start squeezing.”

He didn’t respond with shouts or rage, but the cold void in his eyes could have consumed continents and left only blackness. He raised his hand to her chin and gently cupped it, a mockery of a once-passionate gesture.

It was more painful than a slap.

“You know why I don’t involve you, Navani?” he said softly. “Do you think you can take the truth?”

“Try for once. It would be refreshing.”

“You aren’t worthy, Navani. You claim to be a scholar, but where are your discoveries? You study light, but you are its opposite. A thing that destroys light. You spend your time wallowing in the muck of the kitchens and obsessing about whether or not some insignificant lighteyes recognizes the right lines on a map.

“These are not the actions of greatness. You are no scholar. You merely like being near them. You are no artifabrian. You are merely a woman who likes trinkets. You have no fame, accomplishment, or capacity of your own. Everything distinctive about you came from someone else. You have no power—you merely like to marry men who have it.”

“How dare you—”

“Deny it, Navani,” he snapped. “Deny that you loved one brother, but married the other. You pretended to adore a man you detested—all because you knew he would be king.”

She recoiled from him, pulling out of his grip and turning her head to the side. She closed her eyes and felt tears on her cheeks. It was more complicated than he implied, as she had loved both of them—and Dalinar’s intensity had frightened her, so Gavilar had seemed the safer choice.

But there was a truth to Gavilar’s accusation. She could lie to herself and say she’d seriously considered Dalinar, but they’d all known she’d eventually choose Gavilar. And she had. He was the more influential of the two.

“You went where the money and power would be greatest,” Gavilar said. “Like any common whore. Write whatever you want about me. Say it, shout it, proclaim it. I will outlive your accusations, and my legacy will persist. I have discovered the entrance to the realm of gods and legends, and once I join them, my kingdom will never end. I will never end.”

He left then, closing the door behind him with a quiet click. Even in an argument he controlled the situation.

Trembling, Navani fumbled her way to a seat by the desk, which boiled over with angerspren. And shamespren, which fluttered around her like white and red petals.

Fury made her shake. Fury at him. At herself for not fighting back. At the world, because she knew what he said was at least partially true.

No. Don’t let his lies become your truth. Fight it. Teeth gritted, she opened her eyes and began rummaging in her desk for some oil paint and paper.

She began painting, taking care with each calligraphic line. Pride—as if proof to him— compelled her to be meticulous and perfect. The act usually soothed her. The way that neat, orderly lines became words, the way that paint and paper transformed into meaning.

In the end, she had one of the finest glyphwards she’d ever created. It read, simply, Death. Gift. Death. She’d drawn each glyph in the shapes of Gavilar’s tower or sword heraldry.

The prayer burned eagerly in the lamp flame, flaring bright—and as it did, her catharsis turned to shame. What was she doing? Praying for her husband’s death? The shamespren returned in a burst.

How had it come to this? Their arguments grew worse and worse. She knew he was not this man, the one he showed her lately. He wasn’t like this when he spoke to Dalinar, or to Sadeas, or even—usually—to Jasnah.

Gavilar was better than this. She suspected he knew it too. Tomorrow she would receive flowers. No apology to accompany them, but a gift, usually a bracelet.

Yes, he knew he should be something more. But… somehow she brought out the monster in him. And he somehow brought out the weakness in her. She slammed her safehand palm against the table, rubbing her forehead with her other hand.

Storms. It seemed not so long ago that they’d sat conspiring together about the kingdom they would forge. Now they barely spoke without reaching for their sharpest knives—stabbing them right into the most painful spots with an accuracy gained only through longtime familiarity.

She composed herself with effort, redoing her makeup, touching up her hair. She might be the things he said, but he was no more than a backwater thug with too much luck and a knack for fooling good men into following him.

If a man like that could pretend to be a king, she could pretend to be a queen. At any rate, they had a kingdom.

At least one of them should try to run it.

***

Navani didn’t hear of the assassination until it had been accomplished.

At the feast, they’d been the model of perfect royalty, cordial to one another, leading their respective meals. Then Gavilar had left, fleeing as soon as he could find an excuse. At least he’d waited until the dining was finished.

Navani had gone down to bid farewell to the guests. She had implied that Gavilar wasn’t deliberately snubbing anyone. He was merely exhausted from his extensive touring. Yes, she was certain he’d be holding audience soon. They’d love to visit once the next storm passed…

On and on she went, until each smile made her face feel as if it would crack. She was relieved when a messenger girl came running for her. She stepped away from the departing guests, expecting to hear that an expensive vase had shattered, or that Dalinar was snoring at his table.

Instead, the messenger girl brought Navani over to the palace steward, his face a mask of grief. Eyes reddened, hands shaking, the aged man reached out for her and took her arm—as if for stability. Tears ran down his face, getting caught in his wispy beard.

Seeing his emotion, she realized she rarely thought of the man by his name, rarely thought of him as a person. She’d often treated him like a fixture of the palace, much as one might the statues out front. Much as Gavilar treated her.

“Gereh,” she said, taking his hand, embarrassed. “What happened? Are you well? Have we been working you too hard without—”

“The king,” the elderly man choked out. “Oh, Brightness, they’ve taken our king! Those parshmen. Those barbarians. Those… those monsters.”

Her immediate suspicion was that Gavilar had found some way to escape the palace, and everyone thought he’d been kidnapped. That man… she thought, imagining him out in the city with his uncommon visitors, discussing secrets in a dark room.

Gereh held to her tighter. “Brightness, they’ve killed him. King Gavilar is dead.”

“Impossible,” she said. “He’s the most powerful man in the land, perhaps the world. Surrounded by Shardbearers. You are mistaken, Gereh. He’s…”

He’s as enduring as the storms. But of course that wasn’t true—it was merely what he wished people to think. I will never end… When he said things like that, it was hard to disbelieve him.

She had to see the body before the truth started to seep in at last, chilling her like a winter rain. Gavilar, broken and bloody, lay on a table in the larder—with guards forcibly turning aside the frightened house staff when they asked for explanations.

Navani stood over him. Even with the blood in his beard, the shattered Shardplate, his lack of breath and the gaping wounds in his flesh… even then she wondered if it was a trick. What lay before her was an impossibility. Gavilar Kholin couldn’t simply die like other men.

She had them show her the fallen balcony, where Gavilar had been found lifeless after dropping from above. Jasnah had witnessed it, they said. The normally unflappable girl sat in the corner, her fisted safehand to her mouth as she cried.

Only then did the shockspren begin to appear around Navani, like triangles of breaking light. Only then did she believe.

Gavilar Kholin was dead.

Sadeas pulled Navani aside and, with genuine sorrow, explained his role in the events. She listened in a numb sense of disconnect. She had been so busy, she hadn’t realized that most of the Parshendi had left the palace in secret—fleeing into the darkness moments before their minion attacked. Their leaders had stayed behind to cover up the withdrawal.

In a trance, Navani walked back to the larder and the cold husk of Gavilar Kholin. His discarded shell. From the looks of the attending servants and surgeons, they anticipated grief from her. Wailing perhaps. Certainly there were painspren appearing in droves in the room, even a few rare anguishspren, like teeth growing from the walls.

She felt something akin to those emotions. Sorrow? No, not exactly. Regret. If he truly was dead, then… that was it. Their last real conversation had been another argument. There was no going back. Always before, she’d been able to tell herself that they’d reconcile. That they’d hunt through the thorns and find a path to return to what they’d been. If not loving, then at least aligned.

Now that would never be. It was over. He was dead, she was a widow, and… storms, she’d prayed for this. That knowledge stabbed her straight through. She had to hope the Almighty hadn’t listened to her foolish pleas written in a moment of fury. Although a part of her had grown to hate Gavilar, she didn’t truly want him dead. Did she?

No. No, this was not how it should have ended. And so she felt another emotion. Pity.

Lying there, blood pooling on the tabletop around him, Gavilar Kholin’s corpse seemed the ultimate insult to his grand plans. He thought he was eternal, did he? He thought to reach for some grand vision, too important to share with her? Well, the Father of Storms and the Mother of the World ignored the desires of men, no matter how grand.

What she didn’t feel was grief. His death was meaningful, but it didn’t mean anything to her. Other than perhaps a way for her children to never have to learn what he’d become.

I will be the better person, Gavilar, she thought, closing his eyes. For what you once were, I’ll let the world pretend. I’ll give you your legacy.

Then she paused. His Shardplate—well, the Plate he was wearing—had broken near the waist. She reached her fingers into his pocket and brushed hogshide leather. She eased out the pouch of spheres he’d been showing off earlier, but found it empty.

Storms. Where had he put them?

Someone in the room coughed, and she became suddenly cognizant of how it looked for her to be rifling through his pockets. Navani took the spheres from her hair, put them into the pouch, then folded it into his hand before resting her forehead on his broken chest. That would appear as if she were returning gifts to him, symbolizing her light becoming his as he died.

Then, with his blood on her face, she stood up and made a show of composing herself. Over the next hours, organizing the chaos of a city turned upside down, she worried she’d get a reputation for callousness. Instead, people seemed to find her sturdiness comforting.

The king was gone, but the kingdom lived on. Gavilar had left this life as he’d lived it: with grand drama that afterward required Navani to pick up the pieces.


 

Part One

Kaladin * Shallan * Navani * Venli * Lirin

Chapter 1
Calluses

First, you must get a spren to approach.

The type of gemstone is relevant; some spren are naturally more intrigued by certain gemstones. In addition, it is essential to calm the spren with something it knows and loves. A good fire for a flamespren, for example, is a must.

—Lecture on fabrial mechanics presented by Navani Kholin to the coalition of monarchs, Urithiru, Jesevan, 1175

 

Lirin was impressed at how calm he felt as he checked the child’s gums for scurvy. Years of training as a surgeon served him well today. Breathing exercises—intended to keep his hands steady—worked as well during espionage as they did during surgery.

“Here,” he said to the child’s mother, digging a small carved carapace chit from his pocket. “Show this to the woman at the dining pavilion. She’ll get some juice for your son. Make certain he drinks it all, each morning.”

“Very thank you,” the woman said in a thick Herdazian accent. She gathered her son close, then looked to Lirin with haunted eyes. “If… if child… found…”

“I will make certain you’re notified if we hear of your other children,” Lirin promised. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

She nodded, wiped her cheeks, and carried the child to the watchpost outside of town. Here, a group of armed parshmen lifted her hood and compared her face to drawings sent by the Fused. Hesina, Lirin’s wife, stood nearby to read the descriptions as required.

Behind them, the morning fog obscured Hearthstone. It seemed to be a group of dark, shadowy lumps. Like tumors. Lirin could barely make out tarps stretched between buildings, offering meager shelter for the many refugees pouring out of Herdaz. Entire streets were closed off, and phantom sounds—plates clinking, people talking—rose through the fog.

Those shanties would never last a storm, of course, but they could be quickly torn down and stowed. There simply wasn’t enough housing otherwise. People could pack into stormshelters for a few hours, but couldn’t live like that.

He turned and glanced at the line of those waiting for admittance today. It vanished into the fog, attended by swirling insectile hungerspren and exhaustionspren like jets of dust. Storms. How many more people could the town hold? The villages closer to the border must be filled to capacity, if so many were making their way this far inward.

It had been over a year since the coming of the Everstorm and the fall of Alethkar. A year during which the country of Herdaz—Alethkar’s smaller neighbor to the northwest—had somehow kept fighting. Two months ago, the enemy had finally decided to crush the kingdom for good. Refugee numbers had increased soon after. As usual, the soldiers fought while the common people—their fields trampled—starved and were forced out of their homes.

Hearthstone did what it could. Aric and the other men—once guards at Roshone’s manor, now forbidden weapons—organized the line and kept anyone from sneaking into town before Lirin saw them. He had persuaded Brightness Abiajan that it was essential he inspect each individual. She worried about plague; he just wanted to intercept those who might need treatment.

Her soldiers moved down the line, alert. Parshmen carrying swords. Learning to read, insisting they be called “singers.” A year after their awakening, Lirin still found the notions odd. But really, what was it to him? In some ways, little had changed. The same old conflicts consumed the parshmen as easily as they had the Alethi brightlords. People who got a taste of power wanted more, then sought it with the sword. Ordinary people bled, and Lirin was left to stitch them up.

He returned to his work. Lirin had at least a hundred more refugees to see today. Hiding somewhere among them was a man who had authored much of this suffering. He was the reason Lirin was so nervous today. The next person in line was not him, however, but was instead a ragged Alethi man who had lost an arm in battle. Lirin inspected the refugee’s wound, but it was a few months old at this point, and there was nothing Lirin could do about the extensive scarring.

Lirin moved his finger back and forth before the man’s face, watching his eyes track it. Shock, Lirin thought. “Have you suffered recent wounds you’re not telling me about?”

“No wounds,” the man whispered. “But brigands… they took my wife, good surgeon. Took her… left me tied to a tree. Just walked off laughing…”

Bother. Mental shock wasn’t something Lirin could cut out with a scalpel. “Once you enter the town,” he said, “look for tent fourteen. Tell the women there I sent you.”

The man nodded dully, his stare hollow. Had he registered the words? Memorizing the man’s features—greying hair with a cowlick in the back, three large moles on the upper left cheek, and of course the missing arm—Lirin made a note to check that tent for him tonight. Assistants there watched refugees who might turn suicidal. It was, with so many to care for, the best Lirin could manage.

“On with you,” Lirin said, gently pushing the man toward the town. “Tent fourteen. Don’t forget. I’m sorry for your loss.”

The man walked off.

“You say it so easily, surgeon,” a voice said from behind.

Lirin spun, then immediately bowed in respect. Abiajan, the new citylady, was a parshwoman with stark white skin and fine red marbling on her cheeks.

“Brightness,” Lirin said. “What was that?”

“You told that man you were sorry for his loss,” Abiajan said. “You say it so readily to each of them—but you seem to have the compassion of a stone. Do you feel nothing for these people?”

“I feel, Brightness,” Lirin said, “but I must be careful not to be overwhelmed by their pain. It’s one of the first rules of becoming a surgeon.”

“Curious.” The parshwoman raised her safehand, which was shrouded in the sleeve of a havah. “Do you remember setting my arm when I was a child?”

“I do.” Abiajan had returned—with a new name and a new commission from the Fused—after fleeing with the others following the Everstorm. She had brought many parshmen with her, all from this region, but of those from Hearthstone only Abiajan had returned. She remained closed-lipped about what she had experienced in the intervening months.

“Such a curious memory,” she said. “That life feels like a dream now. I remember pain. Confusion. A stern figure bringing me more pain—though I now recognize you were seeking to heal me. So much trouble to go through for a slave child.”

“I have never cared who I heal, Brightness. Slave or king.”

“I’m sure the fact that Wistiow had paid good money for me had nothing to do with it.” She narrowed her eyes at Lirin, and when she next spoke there was a cadence to her words, as if she were speaking the words to a song. “Did you feel for me, the poor confused slave child whose mind had been stolen from her? Did you weep for us, surgeon, and the life we led?”

“A surgeon must not weep,” Lirin said softly. “A surgeon cannot afford to weep.”

“Like a stone,” she said again, then shook her head. “Have you seen any plaguespren on these refugees? If those spren get into the city, it could kill everyone.”

“Disease isn’t caused by spren,” Lirin said. “It is spread by contaminated water, improper sanitation, or sometimes by the breath of those who bear it.”

“Superstition,” she said.

“The wisdom of the Heralds,” Lirin replied. “We should be careful.” Fragments of old manuscripts—translations of translations of translations—mentioned quick-spreading diseases that had killed tens of thousands. Such things hadn’t been recorded in any modern texts he’d been read, but he had heard rumors of something strange to the west—a new plague, they were calling it. Details were sparse.

Abiajan moved on without further comment. Her attendants—a group of elevated parshmen and parshwomen—joined her. Though their clothing was of Alethi cut and fashion, the colors were lighter, more muted. The Fused had explained that singers in the past eschewed bright colors, preferring to highlight their skin patterns instead.

Lirin sensed a search for identity in the way Abiajan and the other parshmen acted. Their accents, their dress, their mannerisms—they were all distinctly Alethi. But they grew transfixed whenever the Fused spoke of their ancestors, and they sought ways to emulate those long-dead parshmen.

Lirin turned to the next group of refugees—a complete family for once. Though he should have been happy, he couldn’t help wondering how difficult it was going to be to feed five children and parents who were all flagging from poor nutrition.

As he sent them on, a familiar figure moved along the line toward him, shooing away hungerspren. Laral wore a simple servant’s dress now, with a gloved hand instead of a sleeve, and she carried a water bucket to the waiting refugees. Laral didn’t walk like a servant though. There was a certain… determination about the young woman that no forced subservience could smother. The end of the world seemed roughly as bothersome to her as a poor harvest once had.

She paused by Lirin and offered him a drink—taken from her waterskin and poured into a fresh cup as he insisted, rather than ladled straight from the bucket.

“He’s three down,” Laral whispered as Lirin sipped.

Lirin grunted.

“Shorter than I expected him to be,” Laral noted. “He’s supposed to be a great general, leader of the Herdazian resistance. He looks more like a traveling merchant.”

“Genius comes in all shapes, Laral,” Lirin said, waving for her to refill his cup to give an excuse for them to keep talking.

“Still…” she said, then fell silent as Durnash passed by, a tall parshman with marbled black and red skin, a sword on his back. Once he was well on his way, she continued softly, “I’m honestly surprised at you, Lirin. Not once have you suggested we turn in this hidden general.”

“He’d be executed,” Lirin said.

“You think of him as a criminal though, don’t you?”

“He bears a terrible responsibility; he perpetuated a war against an overwhelming enemy force. He threw away the lives of his men in a hopeless battle.”

“Some would call that heroism.”

“Heroism is a myth you tell idealistic young people—specifically when you want them to go bleed for you. It got one of my sons killed and another taken from me. You can keep your heroism and return to me the lives of those wasted on foolish conflicts.”

At least it seemed to almost be over. Now that the resistance in Herdaz had finally collapsed, hopefully the refugee flood would slow.

Laral watched him with pale green eyes. She was a keen one. How he wished life had gone in another direction, that old Wistiow had held on a few more years. Lirin might call this woman daughter, and might have both Tien and Kaladin beside him now, working as surgeons.

“I won’t turn in the Herdazian general,” Lirin said. “Stop looking at me like that. I hate war, but I won’t condemn your hero.”

“And your son will come fetch him soon?”

“We’ve sent Kal word. That should be enough. Make sure your husband is ready with his distraction.”

She nodded and moved on to offer water to the parshman guards at the town entrance. Lirin got through the next few refugees quickly, then reached a group of cloaked figures. He calmed himself with the quick breathing exercise his master had taught him in the surgery room all those years ago. Although his insides were a storm, Lirin’s hands didn’t shake as he waved forward the cloaked figures.

“I will need to do an examination,” Lirin said softly, “so it doesn’t seem unusual when I pull you out of the line.”

“Begin with me,” said the shortest of the men. The other four shifted their positions, placing themselves carefully around him.

“Don’t look so much like you’re guarding him, you sodden fools,” Lirin hissed. “Here, sit down on the ground. Maybe you’ll seem less like a gang of thugs that way.”

They did as requested, and Lirin pulled over his stool beside the apparent leader. He bore a thin, silvered mustache on his upper lip, and was perhaps in his fifties. His sun-leathered skin was darker than most Herdazians’; he could almost have passed for Azish. His eyes were a deep dark brown.

“You’re him?” Lirin whispered as he put his ear to the man’s chest to check his heartbeat.

“I am,” the man said.

Dieno enne Calah. Dieno “the Mink” in Old Herdazian. Hesina had explained that enne was an honorific that implied greatness.

One might have expected the Mink—as Laral apparently had—to be a brutal warrior forged on the same anvil as men like Dalinar Kholin or Meridas Amaram. Lirin, however, knew that killers came in all kinds of packages. The Mink might be short and missing a tooth, but there was a power to his lean build, and Lirin spotted not a few scars in his examination. Those around the wrists, in fact… those were the scars manacles made on the skin of slaves.

“Thank you,” Dieno whispered, “for offering us refuge.”

“It wasn’t my choice,” Lirin said.

“Still, you ensure that the resistance will escape to live on. Heralds bless you, surgeon.” Lirin dug out a bandage, then began wrapping a wound on the man’s arm that hadn’t been seen to properly. “The Heralds bless us with a quick end to this conflict.”

“Yes, with the invaders sent running all the way back to Damnation from which they were spawned.”

Lirin continued his work.

“You… disagree, surgeon?”

“Your resistance has failed, General,” Lirin said, pulling the bandage tight. “Your kingdom has fallen like my own. Further conflict will only leave more men dead.”

“Surely you don’t intend to obey these monsters.”

“I obey the person who holds the sword to my neck, General,” Lirin said. “Same as I always have.”

He finished his work, then gave the general’s four companions cursory examinations. No women. How would the general read messages sent to him?

Lirin made a show of discovering a wound on one man’s leg, and—with a little coaching—the man limped on it properly, then let out a painful howl. A poke of a needle made painspren claw up from the ground, shaped like little orange hands.

“That will need surgery,” Lirin said loudly. “Or you might lose the leg. No, no complaints. We’re going to see to that right away.”

He had Aric fetch a litter. Positioning the other four soldiers—the general included—as bearers for that litter gave Lirin an excuse to pull them all out of line.

Now they just needed the distraction. It came in the form of Toralin Roshone: Laral’s husband, former citylord. He stumbled out of the fog-shrouded town, wobbling and walking unsteadily.

Lirin waved to the Mink and his soldiers, slowly leading them toward the inspection post. “You aren’t armed, are you?” he hissed under his breath.

“We left obvious weapons behind,” the Mink replied, “but it will be my face—and not our arms—that betrays us.”

“We’ve prepared for that.” Pray to the Almighty it works.

As Lirin drew near, he could better make out Roshone. The former citylord’s cheeks hung in deflated jowls, still reflecting the weight he’d lost following his son’s death seven years ago. Roshone had been ordered to shave his beard, perhaps because he’d been fond of it, and he no longer wore his proud warrior’s takama. That had been replaced by the kneepads and short trousers of a crem scraper.

He carried a stool under one arm and muttered in a slurred voice, his wooden peg of a foot scraping stone as he walked. Lirin honestly couldn’t tell if Roshone had gotten drunk for the display, or if he was faking. The man drew attention either way. The parshmen manning the inspection post nudged one another, and one hummed to an upbeat rhythm—something they often did when amused.

Roshone picked a building nearby and set down his stool, then—to the delight of the watching parshmen—tried stepping up on it, but missed and stumbled, teetering on his peg, nearly falling.

They loved watching him. Every one of these newly born singers had been owned by one wealthy lighteyes or another. Watching a former citylord reduced to a stumbling drunk who spent his days doing the most menial of jobs? To them it was more captivating than any storyteller’s performance.

Lirin stepped up to the guard post. “This one needs immediate surgery,” he said, gesturing to the man in the litter. “If I don’t get to him now, he might lose a limb. My wife will have the rest of the refugees sit and wait for my return.”

Of the three parshmen assigned as inspectors, only Dor bothered to check the “wounded” man’s face against the drawings. The Mink was top of the list of dangerous refugees, but Dor didn’t spare a glance for the litter bearers. Lirin had noticed the oddity a few days earlier: when he used refugees from the line as labor, the inspectors often fixated solely on the person in the litter.

He’d hoped that with Roshone to provide entertainment, the parshmen would be even more lax. Still, Lirin felt himself sweating as Dor hesitated on one of the pictures. Lirin’s letter— returned with the scout who had arrived begging for asylum—had warned the Mink to bring only low-level guards who wouldn’t be on the lists. Could it—

The other two parshmen laughed at Roshone, who was trying—despite his drunkenness—to reach the roof of the building and scrape away the crem buildup there. Dor turned and joined them, absently waving Lirin forward.

Lirin shared a brief glance with his wife, who waited nearby. It was a good thing none of the parshmen were facing her, because she was pale as a Shin woman. Lirin probably didn’t look much better, but he held in his sigh of relief as he led the Mink and his soldiers forward. He could sequester them in the surgery room, away from the public eye until—

“Everyone stop what you’re doing!” a female voice shouted from behind. “Prepare to give deference!”

Lirin felt an immediate urge to bolt. He almost did, but the soldiers simply kept walking at a regular pace. Yes. Pretend that you hadn’t heard.

“You, surgeon!” the voice shouted at him. It was Abiajan. Reluctantly Lirin halted, excuses running through his mind. Would she believe he hadn’t recognized the Mink? Lirin was already in rough winds with the citylady after insisting on treating Jeber’s wounds after the fool had gotten himself strung up and whipped.

Lirin turned around, trying hard to calm his nerves. Abiajan hurried up, and although singers didn’t blush, she was clearly flustered. When she spoke, her words had adopted a staccato cadence. “Attend me. We have a visitor.”

It took Lirin a moment to process the words. She wasn’t demanding an explanation. This was about… something else?

“What’s wrong, Brightness?” he asked.

Nearby, the Mink and his soldiers stopped, but Lirin could see their arms shifting beneath their cloaks. They’d said they’d left behind “obvious” weapons. Almighty help him, if this turned bloody…

“Nothing’s wrong,” Abiajan said, speaking quickly. “We’ve been blessed. Attend me.” She looked to Dor and the inspectors. “Pass the word. Nobody is to enter or leave the town until I give word otherwise.”

“Brightness,” Lirin said, gesturing toward the man in the litter. “This man’s wound may not appear dire, but I’m certain that if I don’t tend to it immediately, he—”

“It will wait.” She pointed to the Mink and his men. “You five, wait. Everyone just wait. All right. Wait and… and you, surgeon, come with me.”

She strode away, expecting Lirin to follow. He met the Mink’s eyes and nodded for him to wait, then hurried after the citylady. What could have put her so out of sorts? She’d been practicing a regal air, but had now abandoned it completely.

Lirin crossed the field outside of town, walking alongside the line of refugees, and soon found his answer. A hulking figure easily seven feet tall emerged from the fog, accompanied by a small squad of parshmen with weapons. The dreadful creature had a beard and long hair the color of dried blood, and it seemed to meld with his simple wrap of clothing—as if he wore his hair itself for a covering. He had a pure black skin coloring, with lines of marbled red under his eyes.

Most importantly, he had a jagged carapace unlike any Lirin had seen, with a strange pair of carapace fins—or horns—rising above his ears.

The creature’s eyes glowed a soft red. One of the Fused. Here in Hearthstone.

It had been months since Lirin had seen one—and that had been only in passing as a small group had stopped on the way to the battlefront in Herdaz. That group had soared through the air in breezy robes, bearing long spears. They had evoked an ethereal beauty, but the carapace on this creature looked far more wicked—like something one might expect to have come from Damnation.

The Fused spoke in a rhythmic language to a smaller figure at his side, a warform parshwoman. Singer, Lirin told himself. Not parshwoman. Use the right term even in your head, so you don’t slip when speaking.

The warform stepped forward to translate for the Fused. From what Lirin had heard, even those Fused who spoke Alethi often used interpreters, as if speaking human tongues were beneath them.

“You,” the interpreter said to Lirin, “are the surgeon? You’ve been inspecting the people today?”

“Yes,” Lirin said.

The Fused replied, and again the interpreter translated. “We are searching for a spy. He might be hidden among these refugees.”

Lirin felt his mouth go dry. The thing standing above him was a nightmare that should have remained a legend, a demon whispered of around the midnight fire. When Lirin tried to speak, the words wouldn’t come out, and he had to cough to clear his throat.

At a barked order from the Fused, the soldiers with him spread out to the waiting line. The refugees backed away, and several tried to run, but the parshmen—though small beside the Fused—were warforms, with powerful strength and terrible speed. They caught runners while others began searching through the line, throwing back hoods and inspecting faces.

Don’t look behind you at the Mink, Lirin. Don’t seem nervous.

“We…” Lirin said. “We inspect each person, comparing them to the drawings given us. I promise you. We’ve been watchful! No need to terrorize these poor refugees.”

The interpreter didn’t translate Lirin’s words for the Fused, but the creature spoke immediately in its own language.

“The one we seek is not on those lists,” the interpreter said. “He is a young man, a spy of the most dangerous kind. He would be fit and strong compared to these refugees, though he might have feigned weakness.”

“That… that could describe any number of people,” Lirin said. Could he be in luck? Could this be a coincidence? It might not be about the Mink at all. Lirin felt a moment of hope, like sunlight peeking through stormclouds.

“You would remember this man,” the interpreter continued. “Tall for a human, with wavy black hair worn to the shoulders. Clean shaven, he has a slave’s brand on his forehead. Including the glyph shash.

Slave’s brand.

Shash. Dangerous.

Oh no…

Nearby, one of the Fused’s soldiers threw back the hood of another cloaked refugee— revealing a face that should have been intimately familiar to Lirin. Yet the harsh man Kaladin had become looked like a crude drawing of the sensitive youth Lirin remembered.

Kaladin immediately burst alight with power. Death had come to visit Hearthstone today, despite Lirin’s every effort.

Excerpted from Rhythm of War, copyright ©2020 Dragonsteel Entertainment.


 

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