Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson

Read Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson: Chapter Fourteen

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.

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Chapter 14

All gemstones leak Stormlight at a slow rate—but so long as the crystal structure remains mostly intact, the spren cannot escape. Managing this leakage is important, as many fabrials also lose Stormlight through operation. All of this is tied up in the intricacies of the art. As is understanding one last vital kind of spren: logicspren.

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


The palace at Kholinar had undergone a dramatic transformation. To a new form, so to speak. Here, more than any other place in the city, Venli felt she could look into the past and see the history of her people.

Gone was the ornate, but boring human fortress. In its place stood a grand construction that used many of the original foundations and walls, but expanded upon them in a unique design. Instead of boxy lines, it contained grand arcs, with large ridges sweeping down from the sides like curved blades. These multiplied toward the top, the ridges rising to points.

The result was a curved conical shape, the peak resembling a crown. The architecture had a distinctly organic feel, enhanced by walls grown over with shalebark to give a rough, uneven texture. The palace vaguely resembled a plant: bulging at the base, with gentle blades sweeping up to the cap.

Venli approached, attuned to Tension. The last twenty hours had been a chaotic jumble as she’d accompanied Leshwi through the city, meeting with other Fused, looking for information. Venli didn’t completely understand why it had set Leshwi off, but a new group of Fused spirits had awakened and come for bodies.

That wasn’t unexpected. Some of the Fused on Braize slumbered, or… hibernated? Meditated? They were coming aware in groups, and joining the battle. But several in particular had Leshwi worried. Perhaps terrified. After a day of chaos spent investigating with Leshwi, Venli had awakened to thunder early in the morning. The Everstorm.

Right after it, she’d received word. A conclave of the most important singers had been called to the palace. As Voice, Venli was expected to arrive quickly—and on her own, for Leshwi would take the entrance provided for the shanay-im above.

Venli tried to calm herself as she walked by focusing on the beautiful palace structure. She wished she could have lived in a time when this architecture was commonplace. She imagined entire cities made of these transfixing arcs, one part dangerous, one part beautiful. Like the natural world.

We did this, she thought. When Eshonai first returned from the human lands, she spoke to Awe about the grand creations of the humans. But we did things like this too. We had cities. We had art. We had culture.

The rebuilding of the palace had been overseen and accomplished by several Fused of a tall, limber variety called fannahn-im, Those Ones of Alteration. Though all Fused were trained as warriors, many had other skills. Some were engineers, scientists, architects. She thought perhaps they’d all once been soldiers before being granted immortality, but the time they’d had to grow since was expansive.

What would it be like to live so many lives? Such wisdom, and such capacity! Seeing such things awakened emotions within her. Not just Awe, but Craving. Were new Fused being made? Could someone like her aspire to this immortality?

Timbre pulsed a warning inside her, and Venli forcibly resisted those instincts. It was not easy. Perhaps as a Surgebinder, she should have been naturally selfless. Naturally noble. Like Eshonai.

Venli was neither. A part of her still longed for the path she’d once imagined—blessed by the Fused for opening the way to their Return, heaped with honors for being the first among her people to listen to the Voidspren. Bringer of the Everstorm. Should she not have become a queen for these actions?

Timbre pulsed another warning, comforting this time. Odium would never give her these honors—Venli had been deceived. Her lusts had led to great pain and destruction. She needed a way to balance her heritage and her goals. She was determined to escape the rule of the Fused, but that did not mean she wanted to abandon singer culture. Indeed, the more she discovered about the singers of old, the more she wanted to know.

She reached the top of the steps and passed by two of the fannahn-im, the Altered Ones, with limber, seven-foot-tall bodies and piles of hair that sprouted only from the very tops of their heads, tumbling down around the carapace that covered the rest of their skulls. These two had not been among those who had built the palace, for they sat with vacant stares. Timbre pulsed to the Rhythm of the Lost. Gone. Like so many of the Fused, their minds had been claimed by the infinite cycle of death and rebirth.

Perhaps there was a reason not to envy their immortality.

The inner entryway of the palace had been rebuilt with sweeping staircases. Walls had been removed, and dozens of rooms had been combined. In the large chambers, they didn’t shut the windows during storms; they simply rolled up the carpets.

Venli climbed all the way to the fifth floor, entering a pinnacle room added by the Fused architects. Large and cylindrical, it was the center of the crown shape. This place was the home of the Nine: leaders of the Fused.

Other Voices were gathering. There were some thirty of them—she’d been led to believe that there would be as many as a hundred, once all the Fused were awake. This room wouldn’t hold that many Voices, even if they lined up shoulder-to-shoulder. As it was, it was growing crowded as each Voice found their place before their master.

Leshwi hovered a few feet off the ground near the other Heavenly Ones, and Venli hastened over. She looked up, and Leshwi nodded, so Venli thumped the butt of her staff on the stones, indicating her master was ready.

The Nine were already there, of course. They couldn’t leave. They’d been entombed in stone.

Nine pillars adorned the center of the chamber, rising in a circle. The stones had been Soulcast into shape—with people inside them. The Nine lived here, permanently melded into the pillars. Again there was an organic feel to the construction, as if the pillars had grown there like trees around the Nine.

The pillars twisted and tapered, shrinking and growing into the chests of the Nine but leaving their heads and the tops of their carapaced shoulders bare. Most had at least one arm free.

The Nine faced inward, their backs to the room. The bizarre entombment was discomforting, alien. Nauseating. It lent the Nine an air of permanence to accent their ageless nature. The pillars seemed to say, “These are older than the stones. They have lived here long enough for the rock to grow over them, like crem reclaiming the ruins of a fallen city.”

Venli couldn’t help but be impressed by their dedication; being locked into motionlessness like this had to be agonizing. The Nine did not eat, subsisting on Odium’s Light alone. Surely this entombment wasn’t good for their sanity.

Though… if they really did want to leave their imprisonment, they could simply have themselves killed. A Fused could also will their spirit from their body, freeing it to seek another host. Indeed, the humans had tried imprisoning Fused as a method of defeating them, but had found it to be futile.

So the Nine could leave, if they wanted. In that light, these tombs were a flagrant, wasteful act—the ultimate price for this show was paid not by the Nine, but by the poor singers they had killed to give them bodies.

The Nine must have counted the knocking of the staffs on the ground, for they raised their heads in unison once the final high lord was in place. Venli glanced at Leshwi, who was humming softly to Agony—the new rhythm that was a counterpart to Anxiety.

“What is happening?” Venli whispered to Craving. “What does this have to do with the new Fused who have awakened?”

“Watch,” Leshwi whispered. “But take care. Remember, what power I have outside is a mere candle’s light in here.”

Leshwi was, for a high lady, low ranked. A field commander, but still merely a soldier. She was both the very crust of the unimportant and the very dregs of the important. She was always careful in walking that line.

The Nine hummed together, then began singing in unison, a song and rhythm Venli had never heard. It sent chills through her, particularly when she realized she couldn’t understand the lyrics. She felt near to comprehending—it was almost within reach—but her powers seemed to shy back from this song. As though… if she could understand, her mind would not be able to handle the meaning.

She was fairly certain what this indicated. Odium, the god of the singers, was watching this conclave. She knew his touch, his stench. He was forbidding any of the Voices from interpreting this song.

It died down, and silence claimed the chamber. “We would hear a report,” one of the Nine said at last—Venli had trouble telling who spoke, since they were all facing one another. “A firsthand account of what was seen at the recent clash in northern Avendla.”

Avendla was their name for Alethkar; Venli’s powers instantly knew the meaning of the word. Land of the Second Advance. Her abilities stopped there, however, and she couldn’t answer the more interesting question. Why was it called that?

Leshwi hummed, so Venli stepped forward and cracked her scepter against the floor twice, then bowed, head down.

Leshwi rose behind her, clothing rustling. “I will have Zandiel provide sketches. The large human ship flew of its own power, using no gemstones we could see—though certainly they were embedded somewhere inside.”

“It flew by Lashings,” one of the Nine said. “The work of Windrunners.”

“No,” Leshwi said. “It did not have that appearance or that feel. This was a device, a machine. Created by their artifabrians.”

The Nine sang together, and their alien song made Timbre—deep within Venli—pulse nervously.

“We were away far too long,” one of the Nine said. “It has let the humans fester like an infection, gaining strength. They create devices we have never known.”

“We are behind them, not ahead,” another said. “It is a dangerous position from which to fight.”

“No,” said a third. “They have made great strides in understanding the prisons of spren, but they know little about the bond, the power of oaths, the nature of the tones of the world. They are cremlings building a nest beneath the shadow of a great temple. They take pride in what they have done, but cannot grasp the beauties around them.”

“Still,” said the first. “Still. We could not have crafted the flying device they have.”

“Why would we? We have the shanay-im.

Venli remained bowed, hand on her staff. Holding the pose exactly grew uncomfortable, but she would never complain. She was as close to important events as a mortal could get, and she was certain she could use the knowledge to some advantage. The Nine spoke for the ears of those listening. They could have conversed quietly, but these meetings were about the spectacle.

“Leshwi,” one of the Nine said. “What of the suppressor we sent to be tested? Did it work?”

“It worked,” Leshwi said, “but it was also lost. The humans captured it. I fear this will lead them to further explorations and discoveries.”

“This was poorly handled,” said one of the Fused.

“I take no responsibility for this error,” Leshwi said. “You must speak to the Pursuer to find record of the mistake.”

Each spoke with formal tones and rhythms. Venli had the impression that the Nine knew how these answers would play out.

“Lezian!” the Nine called together. “You will—”

“Oh, dispense with the pageantry,” a loud voice said. A tall Fused emerged from the shadows on the far side of the room.

Leshwi lowered down, and Venli straightened and stepped back into line before her master. That gave her a good view of this new Fused, which was of a variety that Venli had never seen. Enormous, with jagged carapace and deep red hair, the being wore only a simple black wrap for clothing. Or… was his hair the clothing? It seemed to meld with the wrap.

Fascinating. Nex-im, Those Ones of Husks, the ninth brand of Fused. She had heard them spoken of; supposedly very few existed. Was this the recently awakened Fused who had Leshwi so concerned?

“Lezian, the Pursuer,” said one of the Nine. “You were entrusted with a delicate device, a suppressor of Stormlight abilities. You were told to test it. Where is this device?”

“I tested it,” Lezian snapped, showing little of the formality or respect others gave the Nine. “It didn’t work.”

“You are certain of this?” the Nine asked. “Was the man Invested when he attacked you?”

“You think I could be defeated by a common human?” the Pursuer demanded. “This Windrunner must be of the Fourth Ideal—something I was led to believe had not yet happened. Perhaps our reconnaissance teams have lost their edge, during the long time spent between Returns.”

Behind Venli, Leshwi hummed sharply to Conceit. She did not like that implication.

“Regardless,” the Pursuer said, “I was killed. The Windrunner is more dangerous than any of us were led to believe. I must pursue him now, as is my right by tradition. I will leave immediately.”

Curious, Venli thought. If he’d fought Stormblessed, then he could not be the newly awakened one that Leshwi feared. The Pursuer stood with arms crossed as the Nine began to sing to one another again, softer than before. In the past, such deliberations had taken several minutes. Many of the other Fused began conferring quietly as they waited.

Venli leaned back, whispering, “Who is he, Lady?”

“A hero,” Leshwi responded to Withdrawal. “And a fool. Millennia ago, Lezian was the first Fused to be killed by a human. To avoid the shame of such death, upon returning to life, Lezian ignored all orders and rational arguments—and went into battle seeking only the man who had killed him.

“He was successful, and his tradition was born. Any time he is killed, Lezian ignores everything else until he has claimed the life of the one who killed him. Six thousand years, and he’s never failed. Now the others—even those chosen as the Nine—encourage his quests.”

“I thought in the past, you were exiled to Braize once you died? How could he return to hunt the one who had killed him?”

Much of this was still confusing to Venli. For thousands of years, the humans and the singers had fought many rounds of an eternal war. Each new wave of attacks had involved what was called a Return, when the Fused would descend to Roshar. The humans called these Desolations.

There was something special about the way the human Heralds interacted that could lock the Fused on Braize, the land called Damnation by the humans. Only once the Fused broke the Heralds through torture—sending them back to Roshar—could a Return be initiated. This cycle had played out for millennia, until the Last Desolation, where something had changed. Something to do with a single Herald and an unbreakable will.

“You mistake the cycle, simplify it,” Leshwi said softly. “We were only locked on Braize once the Heralds died and joined us there. Until then, there would often be years or even decades of rebirths during a Return—during which time the Heralds would train humans to fight. Once they were confident that humans could continue to stand, the Heralds would give themselves to Braize to activate the Isolation. The Heralds would need to die for this to work.”

“But… they didn’t die the last time?” Venli said. “They remained, but you were still locked away.”

“Yes…” Leshwi said. “They somehow found some way to shift the Oathpact to depend on a single member.” She nodded toward the Pursuer. “Regardless, before an Isolation began, that one always managed to find and kill any humans who had bested him. As soon as the Isolation was begun, he’d kill himself, so he’d never return to Braize permanently after having died by human hand.

“As I said, the others encourage his tradition. He is allowed to act outside command structures, given leeway to Pursue. When he is not hunting one who killed him, he seeks to fight the strongest of the enemy Radiants.”

“That sounds like a worthy Passion,” Venli said, picking her words carefully.

“Yes, it does sound like one,” Leshwi said to Derision. “Perhaps it would be, in someone less reckless. Lezian has endangered our plans, undermined strategies, and ruined more missions than I can count. And he’s growing worse. As all of us are, I suppose…”

“He was killed by the Windrunner hero?” Venli asked. “The one they call Stormblessed?”

“Yes, yesterday. And the Radiant’s powers were suppressed at the time, no matter what Lezian said. Stormblessed is not yet of the Fourth Ideal. I would know. This is doubly a shame on the Pursuer. He grows careless, overly confident. These Radiants are new to their powers, but that does not make them less worthy.”

“You like them,” Venli said, cautiously broaching the topic. “The Windrunners.”

Leshwi was silent for a moment. “Yes,” she said. “They and their spren would make excellent servants, should we be able to subdue them.”

So she was open to new ideas, new ways of thinking. Perhaps she would react favorably to the idea of a new nation of listeners.

“Announce me, Voice,” Leshwi said.

“Now?” Venli said, shocked out of her contemplations. “While the Nine are conferring?”

Leshwi hummed to Command, so Venli scrambled to obey, stepping forward and slamming the butt of her staff against the floor, then bowing.

The Nine interrupted their song, and the one who spoke said the words to Destruction. “What is this, Leshwi?”

“I have more to say,” Leshwi proclaimed to Command. “The Pursuer is losing control. He approaches the state where his mind and intentions cannot be trusted. He was defeated by a common human. It is time for special privileges to be revoked.”

Lezian spun toward her, shouting to Destruction, “How dare you!”

“You are low to make such a declaration, Leshwi,” one of the Nine said. “This is both above and beneath you, at once.”

“I speak my Passion,” she said. “The man who killed the Pursuer has killed me. I claim prior privilege to the life of Stormblessed. The Pursuer must, in this case, wait upon my pleasure.”

“You know my tradition!” he shouted at Leshwi.

“Traditions can be broken.”

The tall Fused stomped toward her, and Venli had to forcibly hold herself in place, bowing—though she was allowed to look up and watch. This Pursuer was enormous, intimidating. He was also nearly out of control, a storm at its height—so angry she couldn’t make out the rhythm to his shouted words.

“I will hunt you!” he shouted. “You cannot deny me my vows! My tradition cannot be broken!”

Leshwi continued to hover in place unperturbed, and Venli saw an ulterior motive in the conflict. Yes, the Nine were humming to Derision. In losing his temper, the Pursuer proved his Passion—a good thing to them—but also risked proving he was going crazy. Leshwi had purposefully goaded him.

“We accept Leshwi’s prior claim on this man,” the Nine said. “Pursuer, you will not hunt this human until Leshwi has a chance to battle him again.”

“This undermines my entire existence!” the Pursuer said, pointing at Leshwi. “She seeks to destroy my legacy out of spite!”

“Then you should hope she loses their next conflict,” one of the Nine said. “Leshwi, you may hunt this Windrunner. But know that if a battle comes and he must be removed, another may be granted the task.”

“This is understood and accepted,” Leshwi said.

None of them realize she’s trying to protect that Windrunner, Venli thought. Maybe she doesn’t realize it herself. There were schisms among the Fused, cracks much larger than any would admit. What could be done to take advantage of them?

Timbre pulsed inside her, but in this case Venli was certain her ambition was well placed. To lack it would be to simply go along with whatever she was told. That was not freedom. Freedom, if she was to seek it, would require ambition—in the right place.

The Pursuer, still raging to no particular rhythm, stamped out of the conclave chamber. Leshwi settled down behind Venli, humming softly to Exultation.

“Do not praise yourself overly much, Leshwi,” one of the Nine called. “Do not forget your low station in this room. We have our own reasons for denying the Pursuer.”

Leshwi bowed her head as the Nine returned to their private conversation.

“You could be more,” Venli whispered, returning to her place beside Leshwi. “These are not as clever as you are, Lady. Why do you let them continue to treat you so poorly?”

“I have chosen my station carefully,” Leshwi snapped. “Do not challenge me on this, Voice. It is not your place.”

“I apologize,” Venli said to Agony. “My Passion outstripped my wisdom.”

“That was not Passion, but curiosity.” Leshwi narrowed her eyes. “Be alert. This matter was not the reason the conclave was called. The danger I’ve been fearing is yet to come.”

That made Venli stand up straighter, on her guard. Eventually the Nine stopped singing, but they did not address the leaders of the Fused. Instead the hall fell silent. Moments stretched to minutes. What was happening?

A figure darkened the doorway of the chamber, backlit by sunlight. It was a tall femalen, of the fannahn-im—the builders who had created the palace—with a tall topknot of hair and carapace like a helmet otherwise covering her head. She wore a luxurious robe and was willowy, with a narrow figure and long arms, fingers fully twice the length of Venli’s.

Leshwi hissed. “Gods, no. Not her.”

“What?” Venli asked as the room flooded with whispers from the others. “Who is she?”

“I thought her mad,” Leshwi said to Agony. “How…”

The tall Fused walked into the room and did a slow, careful loop around the perimeter, perhaps to make certain she was seen by everyone. Then she did something Venli had never seen anyone do—no matter how high. She walked into the center of the Nine and looked them in the eyes.

“What does it mean, Lady?” Venli asked.

“She was one of the Nine for many centuries,” Leshwi said. “Until she decided it was too… hampering upon her ambitions. After the last Return, and her madness, she was to remain asleep… Why…”

“Raboniel, Lady of Wishes,” one of the Nine said. “You have brought us a proposal. Please speak it.”

“It is obvious,” Raboniel said, “that the humans have been allowed too much time to grow. They run rampant across Roshar. They have steel weapons and advanced military tactics. They outstrip our own knowledge in areas.

“The one thing they do not yet have is mastery over their powers. There are few among them of the Fourth Ideal—perhaps only one individual—and they do not have full access to the tower, now that the Sibling is dead. We must strike now. We must seize the tower from them.”

Leshwi moved forward, not waiting for Venli to announce her. “This was tried! We attempted to seize the tower, and failed!”

“That?” Raboniel said. “That was a stalling tactic intended to isolate the Bondsmith. The strike could never have succeeded. I was not involved.”

“You forget your place again, Leshwi,” one of the Nine said. “This makes us wonder if you are the one who is losing her mind.”

Leshwi retreated to her spot, and Venli felt the eyes of the other thirty Fused and their Voices on her, shaming her as they hummed.

“You have nearly perfected the suppression fabrials,” Raboniel said. “Do not forget, it is technology I discovered from the tower itself thousands of years ago. I have a plan to use it in a more dramatic way. As the Sibling is essentially a deadeye, I should be able to turn the tower’s defenses against its owners.”

A Voice across the room stepped forward and thumped his staff, announcing Uriam the Defiant. “Pardon,” Uriam said to Craving. “But are you implying that you can suppress the powers of the Radiants inside their own tower?”

“Yes,” Raboniel said. “The device preventing us from attacking them there can be inverted. We will need to lure the Elsecaller and the Bondsmith away. Their oaths may be advanced enough to push through the suppression, much as the Unmade have done at the tower in the past. With them gone, I can lead a force into Urithiru and seize it from within—and the Radiants will be unable to resist.”

The Nine started singing to one another privately, giving everyone else time for conversations. Venli looked to her mistress. Leshwi rarely spent these moments talking to the other high Fused; she was beneath most of them, after all.

“I don’t understand,” Venli whispered.

“Raboniel is a scholar,” Leshwi said. “But not the kind you would wish to work beneath. We used to call her Lady of Pains, until she decided she didn’t like the title.” Her expression grew distant. “She has always been fascinated by the tower and the connection between Radiants. Their oaths, their spren. Their Surges.

“During the last Return, she developed a disease intended to kill all humans on the planet. Near the end, it was discovered that the disease would likely kill many singers as well. She released it anyway…only to find, to all of our fortunes, that it did not work as expected. Fewer than one in ten humans were killed, and one in a hundred singers.”

“That’s terrible!” Venli said.

“Extinction is the natural escalation of this war,” Leshwi whispered. “If you forget why you are fighting, then victory itself becomes the goal. The longer we fight, the more detached we become. Both from our own minds, and from our original Passions.” She hummed softly to Abashment.

“Explain your plan, Raboniel,” one of the Nine said, loudly enough to cut through conversations.

“I will lead a team into the tower,” Raboniel said, “then secure control of the Sibling’s heart. Using my natural talents, and the gifts of Odium, I will corrupt that heart, and turn the tower to our needs. The humans will fall; their powers will not work, but ours will. From there I suspect that—with a little time—I can learn much studying the gemstones at the Sibling’s heart. Perhaps enough to create new weapons against the Radiants and the humans.”

One of the Heavenly Ones, a malen named Jeshishin, came forward as his Voice rapped the floor. “As Leshwi said, we did strike at the tower a year ago. True, that attempt was not meant to be a permanent seizure, but we were rebuffed. I would know the specifics of what we will do this time to ensure victory.”

“We will use the king who has given himself to us,” Raboniel said. “He has delivered intelligence about guard patterns. We don’t need to take the entire tower at first—we simply need to get to the heart and use my knowledge turn the defenses to our advantage.”

“The heart is the most well-guarded location!” Jeshishin said.

Raboniel spoke to Conceit. “Then it is fortunate that we have an agent in their inner circle, is it not?”

Jeshishin floated back, his Voice returning to his place.

“What is her true game?” Leshwi whispered to Craving. “Raboniel has never really been interested in the war or its tactics. This must be about something more. She wants the opportunity to experiment upon the Sibling…”

“This is dangerous,” one of the Nine loudly said to the room. “The humans are suspicious of Taravangian already. He reports that he is watched at all times. If we use his intelligence in this way, there is little doubt he will be compromised entirely.”

“Let him be compromised!” Raboniel said. “What good is a weapon if you don’t swing it? Why have you delayed? The humans are untrained, their powers fledgling, their understanding laughable. I find it embarrassing to awaken and find you struggling against these pitiful shadows of our once-mighty enemies.

“Without the tower, their coalition will disintegrate, as they will be unable to deliver support through the Oathgates. We will gain great advantage through the use of those same portals. In addition, this endeavor will give me the opportunity to test some… theories I have developed while slumbering these last millennia. I am increasingly certain I have discovered a path that will lead to an end to the war.”

Leshwi hissed out slowly, and Venli felt cold. It seemed that whatever Raboniel thought would end the war would involve techniques best left untouched.

The rest of the room, however, appeared impressed. They whispered to Subservience, indicating consent to the idea. Even the Nine started humming to the rhythm. The Fused put on a strong Passionate show, but there was a fatigue to these ancient souls. It underpinned their other Passions, like the true color of a dyed cloth. Wash it, leave it out in the storms long enough, and the core shone through.

These creatures were fraying, surrendering their minds—their will and very individuality offered up to Odium on the altar of eternal war. Perhaps the humans were new to their abilities, untested, but the Fused were old axes, chipped and weathered. They would take great risks, after so many rebirths, to be finished at last.

“What of the Stormblessed?” a voice called out, thickly accented, from the recesses of the grand chamber.

Venli found herself humming to Abashment as she searched the room. Who had spoken so brashly without first ordering their Voice to step forward? She found him sitting on a raised ledge up above, in shadow, right as her mind connected the accent to the lack of decorum.

Vyre. The human, once called Moash. He dressed like a soldier, with perfectly trimmed hair, a sharp uniform cut after human tailoring. He was an oddity. Why did the Nine continue to suffer him? Not only that, why had they given him an Honorblade, one of the most precious relics on Roshar?

He draped one leg off the ledge. Held in his lap, his sword reflected sunlight as the tip moved. “He’ll stop you,” Vyre said. “You should have a plan for dealing with him.”

“Ah, the human,” Raboniel said, looking at Vyre on his ledge. “I’ve heard of you. Such an interesting specimen. Odium favors you.”

“He takes my pain,” Vyre said. “And leaves me to achieve my potential. You did not answer my question. What of Stormblessed?”

“I’m not afraid of a Windrunner, no matter how… mythical his reputation may be growing,” Raboniel said. “We will focus our attention on the Bondsmith and the Elsecaller. They are more dangerous than any simple soldier.”

“Well,” Vyre said, pulling the tip of his sword back into the shadows, “I’m sure you know your business, Fused.”

The Nine, as always, suffered the strange human. His position had been chosen by Odium. Leshwi seemed to think highly of him—of course, he’d once killed her, and that was a sure way to gain her respect.

“Your proposal is bold, Raboniel,” one of the Nine said. “And decisive. We have long been without your guidance in this Return, and we welcome your Passion. We will move forward as you request. Prepare a team for your infiltration of the tower, and we shall contact the human Taravangian with instructions. He can divert the Bondsmith and Elsecaller.”

Raboniel sang loudly to Satisfaction, a stately and decisive sound. Venli was reasonably certain this entire meeting had been for show—the Nine had not stopped to debate the plan. They’d known what Raboniel would suggest, and had already worked out the details.

The other Fused waited respectfully as Raboniel—her victorious proposal elevating her further in their eyes—walked toward the exit. Only one of the Fused moved. Leshwi.

“Come,” she said, floating after Raboniel.

Venli hurried, joining Leshwi as she intercepted the tall femalen just outside the doors. Raboniel looked over Leshwi, humming to Derision as the two emerged into sunlight on the balcony rooftop around the chamber. The stairwell down was to the right.

“Why did you seek to block my proposal, Leshwi?” Raboniel asked. “Have you begun to feel the effects of madness?”

“I am not mad, but afraid,” Leshwi said to Abashment—and Venli started at the words. Lady Leshwi, afraid? “Do you truly think you can end the war?”

“I’m certain of it,” Raboniel said to Derision. “I have had a long time to ponder on the discoveries made before the end of the last Return.” She reached into the pocket of her robe and removed a gemstone glowing with Stormlight, a shifting spren captured inside. A fabrial like the humans created.

“They imprisoned some of the Unmade in these, Leshwi,” Raboniel said. “How close do you think they are to discovering they could do the same for us? Can you imagine it? Forever imprisoned in a gemstone, locked away, able to think but unable to ever break free?”

Leshwi hummed to Panic, a pained rhythm with unfinished measures and chopped-up beats.

“One way or another,” Raboniel said, “this is the final Return. The humans will soon discover how to imprison us. If not, well, the best of us who remain are but a few steps from madness. We must find a solution to this war.”

“You are newly Returned,” Leshwi said. “You have no servants or staff. Your undertaking will require both.” She gestured to the side, to Venli. “I have gathered a staff of faithful and highly capable singers. I would lend them to you for this enterprise, and would attend you myself, as an apology for my objections.”

“You do always have the best servants,” Raboniel said, eyeing Venli. “This one is the Last Listener, is she not? Once Voice of Odium himself? How did you collect her?”

Timbre pulsed inside Venli—she was annoyed by the term “collect,” and Venli felt the same. She bowed her head and hummed to Subservience to keep from revealing her true feelings.

“She was cast off by Odium,” Leshwi said. “I have found her an excellent Voice.”

“The daughter of traitors,” Raboniel said, but to Craving—she was curious about Venli. “Then a traitor to her own kind. I will take her, and those you send, as my servants during the infiltration. You may join us as well. Serve, and perhaps I will forgive your crass objections. There were certainly others thinking the same; you gave opportunity for refutation.”

Raboniel strode away, though as she reached the steps, Venli spotted someone waiting for her in the shadows below. The hulking figure of the Pursuer, who had been dismissed earlier. He bowed to Raboniel, who hesitated at the top of the stairwell. Their exchange was not audible to Venli.

“He’s begging for a chance to go with her,” Leshwi whispered. “Raboniel will have jurisdiction during this infiltration—and can authorize him to continue his hunt. He will try anything to justify another chance at that Windrunner. I fear he will ignore the Nine, particularly if Raboniel approves of him.” She looked to Venli. “You must gather our people and attend her. You will not need to fight; that will be done by others. You will serve her as you have me, and report to me in secret.”

“Mistress?” Venli asked. She lowered her voice. “So you don’t trust her.”

“Of course not,” Leshwi said. “Last time, her recklessness nearly cost us everything. The Nine favor her boldness; they feel the weight of time. Yet boldness can be one step from foolishness. So we must prevent a catastrophe. This land is for the ordinary singers to inherit. I will not leave it desolate simply to prove we can murder better than our enemies.”

Venli swelled at that. Timbre surged inside her, pulsing, encouraging her.

“Mistress,” she whispered, “do you think there… could be a way to re-form my people? Find a land away from both Fused and humans? To be on our own again, as we were?”

Leshwi hummed to Reprimand, glancing toward the chamber with the other Fused. None had left yet. They wouldn’t want to be seen rushing after Raboniel—and Venli realized, in a moment of understanding, why Leshwi preferred to remain lowly among them. Her lack of standing gave her freedom to do things others considered beneath them.

“Do not speak of such things,” Leshwi hissed. “Others already mistrust you for what your ancestors did. You wish to rule yourselves? I commend that—but the time is not right. Help us defeat the humans, and then we Fused will fade into time and leave this world to you. That is how to achieve your independence, Venli.”

“Yes, mistress,” she said to Subservience. She didn’t feel it, and Timbre pulsed her own frustration.

Venli had felt Odium’s hand directly. He would not leave this people alone, and she suspected the other Fused—tired though they might be—would not abandon ruling the world. Too many of them enjoyed the luxury of their positions. Victory for them was no path to independence for Venli and her people.

Leshwi soared off, leaving Venli to walk down the steps. As she did, she caught sight of Raboniel and the Pursuer speaking conspiratorially in the dim reaches of the third floor. Storms, what was Venli getting pulled into now?

Timbre pulsed inside her.

“Opportunity?” Venli said. “What kind of opportunity?”

Timbre pulsed again.

“I thought you hated the human Radiants,” Venli whispered. “Who cares if we’re going to find them at the tower?”

Timbre pulsed decisively. She had a point. Perhaps the humans could train Venli. Maybe she could capture one of their Radiants and make them teach her.

At any rate, she needed to prepare her staff to leave the city. Her recruitment efforts would have to be put on hold. Like it or not, she was going to be at the forefront of another invasion of the human lands.

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

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