We’re excited to share an excerpt from Silence of the Soleri, book two in Michael Johnston’s epic fantasy series The Amber Throne—publishing February 16th with Tor Books.
Solus celebrates the Opening of the Mundus, a two-day holiday for the dead, but the city of the Soleri is hardly in need of diversion. A legion of traitors, led by a former captain of the Soleri military, rallies at the capital’s ancient walls. And inside those fortifications, trapped by circumstance, a second army fights for its very existence.
In a world inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear, this follow-up to Michael Johnston’s Soleri, finds Solus besieged from within as well as without and the Hark-Wadi family is stuck at the heart of the conflict.
The walls of the Soleri throne room were as thick as they were tall, impenetrable to attack, yet somehow vulnerable to the crack of iron breaking upon armor.
“What’s that?” Sarra Amunet asked. She’d spent the better part of an hour bandaging Ott’s wounds, making a splint for her son’s injured leg and wrapping his damaged hand with cloth torn from her dress. A broken spear would serve as his crutch.
“A battle,” Ott answered. “There’s no mistaking the sound.”
“There isn’t,” said Sarra, the disappointment clear in her voice. She’d thought the fight was done. After all, the Protector, Amen Saad, was dead, as were most of his generals. And Arko Hark-Wadi—the man who had been both the Ray of the Sun and her husband—was equally lifeless.
“Can you walk?” she asked.
She helped Ott to his feet, but he stumbled and nearly fell when he took his first step.
“I think not,” she said, “but I’ll take you with me anyway. There’re only ghosts here and I can’t stand the idea of leaving you alone with them.” Admittedly, the dead did outnumber the living in the throne room of the Soleri. The corpses of a dozen priests littered the floor, the blood still fresh, the eyes open. The Protector’s body had not yet gone cold. The whole room stunk of blood and the dank odor of perspiration, and just to make things worse, Suten Anu’s remains were gray and bloated and stinking wildly of decay. The throne was burned, as were many of the furnishings. Soot covered everything and the wind howled through the chamber like some phantom determined to give life to a place that was utterly devoid of it.
Only the dust stirred. Gray motes spiraled about their sandals as the pair made their way toward a slender door Sarra had spied while she was bandaging Ott’s leg. This was not the ceremonial entryway of the throne room, the gate through which Amen Saad had come with Sarra to see the emperor and instead found his death. No, this was a smaller door, unexceptional save for the dim slivers of light that limned its edges. That pale glow could mean only one thing: This door led to the sun. In all likelihood, it would take them to gardens of the Empyreal Domain. Sarra had no interest in taking the long way out of the throne room. That one led through the ritual corridor and the Hall of Histories. She’d lose an hour or more if she followed that passage, but there was no need to retrace the sacred way. Sarra hit the small door and it gave way. She had no idea where she was going, not really. She hoped to see the sun, but clouds blocked it. Smoke rose in the distance, and shouts bounded over the Shroud Wall.
“The battle must be close,” she said. “But who’s fighting it? What battle rages in my city?”
Ott gave no reply.
The two of them walked, Sarra half carrying him as they stumbled onto a well-trimmed sward. Soft grass caressed her feet, tickling at her toes as it gathered around the tongs of her sandals. She stopped. There was no grass in Sola—none that lived.
Abruptly, Sarra noticed that she was not alone. Around her, the humble servants of the Kiltet went about their work. With slender blades, they nipped at each piece of grass, shaped each flower petal. They did not look up. Not one of them attempted to meet Sarra’s gaze. She’d come from the domain of the gods, which meant they were her servants. The men and women of the Kiltet went back to their garden work and Sarra stopped to take note of what surrounded them.
Beauty accosted her from every direction. Sinuous paths meandered into shadowy grottos. Statues of gold and silver poked unexpectedly from leafy vales. There were wonders here. She glimpsed the faint outlines of what she guessed were the Shadow Gardens. The sun itself drew this maze of changing paths. It gave her pause. Sarra was moving slowly, taking it all in. Up ahead, there were strange fountains where figures emerged from the water, their bronze limbs animated by some unseen mechanism, arms and legs lifting and falling in elaborately choreographed motions. She’d read of this place on countless occasions. Somewhere, there was said to be a grotto where the statues were made of light and nothing more, their forms materializing out of the reflections of the grotto’s polished walls. The beauty of these gardens could tease the eyes for eternity. This was the domain of the Soleri.
If only I had time to look at it.
War had come to the city of the gods.
Amen Saad’s bloody handprint still clung to her robe, and the boy’s last breath had barely escaped his lips. She’d thought the fight was over when she defeated the Protector and claimed the mantle of the First Ray, but unrest echoed in the city. War rattled the city streets and Sarra needed to see it, so she hurried through the gardens, heedless of what she crushed or bent. Her sandals mashed clusters of autumn sage, and she trampled the delicate nibs of blue flax and red hyssop. She paid them little or no notice. Sarra had nearly lost her life that morning. She’d risked everything to put Amen Saad to rest and the city to heel. Her work was done.
So why is there turmoil in Solus?
She stumbled onto a pebbled trail, scattering stones as she hurried sidelong across the curving path. Up ahead, smoke gathered at the rim of the Shroud Wall.
The blaze was Amen’s doing. He’d sealed the doors of the Antechamber and set fire to the former Ray of the Sun, putting Arko Hark-Wadi to the old test, Mithra’s Flame. Unfortunately, Amen Saad had lit a torch he could not snuff. The fires consumed half the Waset, and the smoke from the blaze still lingered at the wall, hanging there like some great cloud trapped upon a mountain’s summit.
“Is it the fires?” asked Ott. “Maybe they’ve caused the commotion?”
Sarra wrinkled her lip. “No, this isn’t about Arko or the fire that followed his death. I doubt a single tear was shed for the man.” Sarra had wanted to shed one and perhaps she had, but she doubted any citizen of Solus had done the same. “No,” she said. “This is no protest. The people wanted him dead; they cheered at the flames.”
Sarra stumbled backward when the smoke came tumbling over the wall like some great gray waterfall.
“I see a stair,” said Ott. He motioned to it with his good arm, his broken finger raised to indicate a spiraling set of stones.
Sarra choked down an apology when she saw him tremble, when he screwed his eyes shut in pain. She wanted to explain why she had not been able to beg for Ott’s release when he was a captive of the former Protector, but the words died on her lips. She’d played a delicate game and won, but her son had been caught somewhere in the middle of it all. The fingers on his right hand were broken, jumbled together like sticks tossed haphazardly in a pile.
“Stay here,” she said. “You can’t climb and I need to have a look at the city.”
Ott shook his head, his teeth clenched in pain. “You’re not leaving me, Mother.”
Sarra didn’t bother to argue. He was her son; he shared her curiosity.
They scaled the winding stair, and when Sarra reached the first wall walk she braced Ott against the stones with as much care as was possible.
“Are you all right?” she asked, fearful of the answer.
“You are anything but fine, but I need to get a look at the city. Give me a moment,” she said, pacing, looking for a window. “Where’re the arrow loops?” she murmured. “There must be some hole in this wall.”
As Sarra circled the wall walk, Ott fell to his ass with an uneasy thump.
“I don’t think I can stay here for very long,” he said. The smoke had covered a good portion of the wall and was starting to settle on the path.
“Where are the windows?” she asked, circling the walkway, her eyes at last alighting upon a square of amber no larger than her head. Sarra pushed her fist through it and the panel flew from its moorings, opening up a window onto the city.
Outside, in the streets, two armies clashed. One was small but still formidable, their armor black. She knew them well enough, but the second she did not recognize, not fully. She’d seen them in the past, in a parade of one sort or another. They were clad in bronze mail, but much of it was painted red. It was a pale color, a shade the military houses often favored.
“Tell me what you see,” said Ott as he tore a bit of cloth from his robe and covered his mouth.
She described the soldiers and their livery.
“The red armor,” Ott said, “tell me about it.”
“It’s madder or carmine, and there’s a symbol on the shields, a serpent coiled into a labyrinth of some sort.”
Ott was uncharacteristically quiet, the gray smoke gathering about him.
“What is it?” she asked. “What do you know?”
“I can’t be certain, but I saw that symbol once before, on some guards.”
“Dressed in red?”
“All of them.”
Ott heaved a bitter sigh, eyes fixed on his broken hand. “I saw them in the tower of the Protector, the great Citadel of Solus,” he said, his tone full of mockery. “In that damned cell where they held me.”
“I thought as much,” Sarra said. Then she too was quiet. Once more, Sarra was sorry she’d allowed her foes to take and torture him, sorry her plans had overshadowed the needs of her son. “I . . .” Sarra came up short for the second time. “Who were these men, did they say their names?”
“No names. There was one who came frequently, an elderly man . . . I think. He wore a veil. I could not see his face, but he questioned me often enough. He asked about you and about my true father. He knew I was Arko’s son. He asked how I was kept hidden all these years. He wanted to know everything. I’m sorry . . .” Ott stuttered a bit, his broken fingers twitching. “My secret is revealed.”
Sarra knew as much. Amen Saad had already boasted of the discovery. The house of Saad knew that Ott was the trueborn son of Sarra and Arko, the heir to Harkana’s throne. Arko’s bastard, Ren, had gone to the priory in Ott’s place without even knowing that he was not the king’s legitimate son. To this day, he was ignorant of the truth, or so she guessed.
“These were not Amen’s men?” she asked.
“No,” said Ott, “but they were acquaintances. The elderly man was in command of the soldiers. In fact, it seemed as if he were in charge of Amen, as if he were the one controlling the whole thing.”
At that, Sarra’s head jerked around. She’d thought that Amen Saad had acted alone, that his ambitions belonged to no one else, that he alone had been her foe.
I was wrong.
Amen Saad had a master. This veiled man. Sarra had already guessed at his identity, but she needed to be certain of it.
“I must go into the city, Ott. I have to know what is happening in those streets. The Protector’s Army is stationed well outside of Solus; this is not their fight. These men in red belong to a private army and they’ve taken it upon themselves to wage a war within my city, usurping my power as well as my position.” She needed to take charge of the situation. She was the First Ray of the Sun, the mouth of the god. She was the voice of an emperor that did not even exist, which meant that she was in fact the emperor and this was in fact her city.
The smoke engulfed the walk as Sarra lifted Ott to his feet. They blundered down the winding stair. “I must go,” she said as they stumbled past the stair and back through the gardens. “I’ll exit through the ceremonial arch. I am Ray and I must announce myself to the city.”
“And me?” Ott asked.
“Stay here until we can find a way to disguise you. The House of Saad took you from me once. I won’t let it happen again. We must be cautious, circumspect in every fashion,” she said, though she knew that was not the whole truth. Stay here, she thought, so I know you are out of harm’s way. Sarra did not want to worry over Ott. She wanted to file him away somewhere safe where no one could reach him.
“There are things you can do in the archives of the Soleri,” she continued. “We still don’t know the whole truth about how we found those statues in the Shambles. That boy—the young priest, Nollin—led us there. I’m certain of it. He had some agenda, and it had something to do with the twelve. In the archives of the Soleri, there must be some account of the children of Mithra-Sol, the sons of Re and Pyras. Learn what you can. Stay here, Ott. Worry over these matters.”
She gave him no chance to respond. Sarra simply plowed through the fields of delicate blossoms, trying to wipe Amen Saad’s blood from her robe. It would look terribly suspicious were she to emerge from the domain with a bloody handprint on her sleeve. She hid it as best she could, but some hint of the mark remained and it made her recall the boy’s last moments. When she’d stood above Amen and told him she was emperor, she’d thought that was the end of it. Sarra had won, but the fighting in the streets told a new and different story.
Her struggles had just begun.
Excerpted from Silence of the Soleri, copyright © 2021 by Michael Johnston.