Deep within the southern reaches of the empire an ancient god-like race has begun to stir…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Empire’s Ruin, the first book in a new epic fantasy trilogy from Brian Staveley, based in the world of his popular series the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne. The Empire’s Ruin is available now from Tor Books.
The Annurian Empire is disintegrating. The advantages it used for millennia have fallen to ruin. The ranks of the Kettral have been decimated from within, and the kenta gates, granting instantaneous travel across the vast lands of the empire, can no longer be used.
In order to save the empire, one of the surviving Kettral must voyage beyond the edge of the known world through a land that warps and poisons all living things to find the nesting ground of the giant war hawks. Meanwhile, a monk turned con-artist may hold the secret to the kenta gates.
But time is running out. Deep within the southern reaches of the empire an ancient god-like race has begun to stir.
What they discover will change them and the Annurian Empire forever. If they can survive.
It had taken the better part of the night to steal a boat and slip out of Dombâng, and every moment of that night Gwenna felt like a woman being ripped in two. Half of her wanted to go back, hack her way into whatever was left of the bathhouse, then start cutting people apart until she found Talal or died. Half of her—the smarter half, the better half, the half that didn’t get her own Wingmates murdered—knew that to return right away would be the worst kind of idiocy.
Jak was dead. The Dawn King was dead. Talal was probably dead. Qora was unconscious, unable to stand or swim, and Annick had only two arrows left. The legions, evidently, had some kind of thing about never leaving men behind. Whole companies had been lost trying to rescue soldiers who were obviously doomed. The Kettral were more ruthless.
Save the ones you can, Hendran wrote. Leave the ones you can’t.
It made a brutal sense, but as she rowed the stolen boat out through the teetering shacks on the edge of the city, then into the labyrinthine waterway of the delta, she wondered how many friends Hendran had abandoned in burning buildings to die.
Annick spent the journey back to the ship standing on the rails at the swallowtail’s bow. Halfway through the night, she killed a twelve- foot croc with one of her remaining arrows. Lucky it was a croc. Everything else in the Shirvian delta was poisonous—the wasps, the spiders, the fucking frogs—and arrows and blades—even Kettral blades—didn’t work all that well against wasps. In the two months since the warship had dropped anchor at the east end of the delta, the Annurians had lost twenty- eight men—some to disease, some to crocs or qirna, some just… lost, set out from Dombâng but never returned through the thousand channels to the ship. The Kettral, of course, hadn’t had to deal with those particular dangers. They’d had a bird, until Gwenna lost him.
Not lost, she reminded herself. Slaughtered.
Over and over again, as she rowed through the long night, she saw the Dawn King struggling, screaming, lashing out with his beak, Jak hacking away with his blades, heedless of the flatbow bolt buried in his guts, Talal falling forward, arms outstretched with the effort of hurling Qora through the gap.
She should have been exhausted by the time they reached the ship—she’d spent the night flying, then fighting, then hauling as hard as she could on the oars—but all she felt when Anlatun’s Lion—the three-masted flagship of the rump fleet charged with fomenting sedition in Dombâng—finally loomed up out of the dawn mist was a desperate, physical urgency with no focus or aim, as though her own flesh had turned inward to devour itself.
“We get Qora to the surgeon,” she said, backing water as the boat knocked up against the Lion’s hull, just below the rope ladders. “Get more arrows, more food and water, more explosives, and we go back.”
“It’s daylight,” Annick pointed out, glancing up at the sky.
“Then we’ll toss an anchor just outside the city and hide in the fucking rushes until it gets dark,” Gwenna snarled. “We’re not leaving him there.”
Before the sniper could respond, heads appeared over the rail of the ship—Annurian soldiers with flatbows. The Lion was anchored far enough from Dombâng that none of the city’s fishers or patrols came near it. Still, with twenty-eight dead in two months, no one relaxed, not even on the ship. Frome had a thousand faults, but a lack of caution did not number among them. He had lookouts atop the mast day and night. They would have seen the small boat as it nosed around the last bend, would have recognized what was left of her mop of red hair, but the men staring down at her looked nervous and smelled worse.
“Kettral returning,” she shouted up. “Sharpe and Frencha. We’ve got wounded.”
She shipped the oars, and then, without waiting for the reply, hefted Qora up over her shoulders. The motion ripped away one of the woman’s bandages. Gwenna could feel the blood—hot and slick—soaking into her blacks.
“I can climb,” Qora mumbled.
“You can hold on is what you can do,” Gwenna said as she swung onto the rope ladder. Even with the added weight, it only took a few moments to reach the deck. The soldiers stared, baffled as dogs, as she rolled over the rail. Their confusion made sense—there were supposed to be five Kettral returning, flying in on a massive bird, not two and a half in a stolen boat. Still, the lookouts above should have given them enough warning.
“Point those fucking flatbows somewhere else,” Gwenna snapped. “You.” She stabbed a finger at the nearest man. “Get Qora to the surgeon. You.” Pointing to another. “I need rations and a full med kit in the boat. Throw in some rope while you’re at it—whatever you have that’s light and strong.”
“What happened?” one of the soldiers managed. “Where’s the bird?”
Gwenna ignored the question, partly because there was no time, partly because she couldn’t stomach the answer. Instead, she shoved Qora into his arms—“The surgeon.”—then shouldered her way past, toward the forward hatch.
Her own quarters—a tiny space that she shared with Annick—were on the first deck, all the way up in the ship’s prow. It only took a few moments to scrub the greased soot from her face, change out of her blacks into local dress, hack off a handful of burned hair, check her blades, then strap a new set of munitions around her waist. She was already headed for the door when Annick entered.
“Frome wants an explanation,” the sniper said, filling her quiver as she spoke.
“Frome can fuck himself.”
“Frome is the admiral.”
“I know what his rank is, Annick. He’s going to have to wait. If we want to be in position by nightfall, we need to move now.”
With a little luck, Admiral Frome would stay in his cabin stewing over best practices and protocols, waiting for Gwenna to show her face. With a little more luck, he wouldn’t realize she was off the ship until she and Annick were halfway back to Dombâng. Of course, if she’d given a little more thought to how the day was going, she might have relied a little less on luck.
She reemerged into the sunlight to find the admiral himself advancing across the deck. Two guards flanked him, each carrying a flatbow. The admiral never went anywhere without this guards. Gwenna had always thought Frome looked more like a slug than an Annurian military commander. He was slack, short, constantly slick with his own sweat. His brown skin had an unhealthy orange tint, and his eyes bulged from his flat face. He was trying, as he lumbered down the deck, to make up for all of this by walking with his chin high, his lip twisted into the start of a sneer, but Gwenna could smell the uncertainty on him, and the resentment that came with that uncertainty.
“Commander Sharpe,” he announced. The man never just said anything. He was always announcing or declaiming or proclaiming. “Where do you believe you are going?”
Gwenna glanced over her shoulder at Annick. “I’ll deal with this,” she murmured. “Get to the boat. Be ready to cast off.”
Excerpted from The Empire’s Ruin, copyright © 2021 by Brian Staveley.