Meet Kanthe in James Rollins’ The Starless Crown

Who will claim the Starless Crown?

An alliance embarks on a dangerous journey to uncover the secrets of the distant past and save their world in a captivating new series from author James Rollins. We’re thrilled to share excerpts all this month from The Starless Crown—publishing January 4, 2022 with Tor Books. Read on below, or head back to the beginning.

A gifted student foretells an apocalypse. Her reward is a sentence of death.

Fleeing into the unknown she is drawn into a team of outcasts:

A broken soldier, who once again takes up the weapons he’s forbidden to wield and carves a trail back home.

A drunken prince, who steps out from his beloved brother’s shadow and claims a purpose of his own.

An imprisoned thief, who escapes the crushing dark and discovers a gleaming artifact—one that will ignite a power struggle across the globe.

On the run, hunted by enemies old and new, they must learn to trust each other in order to survive in a world evolved in strange, beautiful, and deadly ways, and uncover ancient secrets that hold the key to their salvation.

But with each passing moment, doom draws closer.


 

 

11

With a groan, the son of the highking woke amidst lice and the foul of his own heave. Off in the distance, the dawn bell clanged down from the heights of Azantiia. Its ringing passed from one tower bell to another, six in all, positioned at each point of Highmount’s star-shaped ramparts.

He tried to stuff the thin pillow in his ears as the new day sounded. But the noise still rattled his skull and made his teeth ache. His stomach lurched, and bile threatened to rise. He swallowed it back into submission, but not before a loud burp escaped.

Finally, the last of the morning’s tolling echoed across the Bay of Promise, and the bells fell mercifully silent.

“Aye, that’s better,” Prince Kanthe sighed out to a room shuttered and dark.

He closed his eyes and tried to remember where he was. He smelled sweat, piss, and the soured ale of his own mess. Fat sizzled on a grill and smoked through floorboards under him. From that cookery came the clanking of pots, interrupted by bellows of an irate innkeep.

Ah, yes…

He foggily remembered a painted wooden sign depicting an armored knight with a sword raised to his lips. The Point’ d Blade. Long ago, someone had crudely altered the sword into a jutting manhood. No one had ever bothered to change it back. Amused by such artistry, he could not leave the tavern unvisited. If he recalled, it had been the third such establishment that he had graced with his illustrious presence. Not that he had given his truest name. As usual, he had arrived in roughspun and a simple cloak, hiding his princely nature.

He sat up, thought better of it, but persevered. He swung his naked legs over to the floor, wondering where his pants had gone. He scratched his privates, attempting to dig out a couple of biting nits. It was a futile battle. Only a steamy lyeleaf bath would win this war.

With a groan, he stood up and shoved open a shutter above the privy to let in fresh air. The brightness stung, but he suffered it as punishment. It was already hot. The skies were blue, with a few fingers of rosy fire-clouds smearing in from the east. Contrarily, lower down to the west, dark storm clouds stacked at the horizon. They had blown off the seas and towered over the grain fields on the far side of the Tallak River, inevitably heading toward the city.

He pictured the twin sky-rivers that Alchymist Frell had tried to describe to him. The scholar claimed that a hot river coursed over the sky, carrying the fiery heat from Urth’s sun-blasted side over to its frigid half—then returned again in a colder stream that hugged closer to the lands and seas, flowing in the opposite direction, west to east. It was said those twin rivers—forever flowing in two different directions—blessed the lands of the Crown with a livable clime. Hieromonks believed it was due to the twin gods, the fiery Hadyss and the icy giant Madyss, who blew those rivers across the skies, while Frell and his order insisted it was due to some natural bellows of fire and ice. The debates continued across the divide of the ninth tier of Kepenhill.

Kanthe sighed. He could not care less—even when he should. He himself was due to climb to the ninth level in less than a fortnight. Not that he had earned such a lofty position. But he was the king’s son. The Council of Eight could hardly deny him his Ascension.

Until then, he intended to use the last of his midsummer break to enjoy his freedom. Of course, he hardly needed any excuse for such carousing. By now, all knew his reputation. Kanthe had earned his many nicknames, often snickered across a scarred bar while he hunkered in disguise over a tankard: the Sodden Prince, the Tallywag, the Dark Trifle. But the most apt slur was simply the Prince in the Cupboard. He was a prince whose only use in life was to be a spare in case his older twin should die. His lot was to sit on a shelf in case he was ever needed.

He turned and searched for his pants. He found them crumpled in a corner and quickly donned them. He felt no shame in those slanders, having well earned them. In truth, he had purposefully done so. As the younger of the king’s two sons, he would never sit on the throne. So, he played his role well. The more he lowered himself, the higher his twin shone.

It’s the least I can do for you, dear brother Mikaen.

He scowled as he finished dressing, hopping on one foot while he tugged a boot onto the other. Maybe I shouldn’t have tarried so long in our mother’s womb. Instead, Mikaen had shouldered his way out first, squalling his lofty place with his first breath. Destined for the throne, Mikaen had been doted upon and cherished. At seven years, his brother had been sent to the Legionary on the castle grounds. Over the past eight years, Mikaen had been trained in all manner of strategy and weaponry, polishing himself for his role as future king of Azantiia.

On the other hand, Kanthe had been shoved out of Highmount and into the school of Kepenhill. It was not unexpected. The royal families of Azantiia had a long history of twin births, some born with the same face, others with different appearances. Mikaen looked as if he had been sculpted out of pale chalkstone, sharing their father’s countenance, including his curled blond locks and sea-blue eyes. Girls—and many a woman—swooned as he passed, especially as Mikaen’s years at the Legionary had layered his body with hard muscles. Not that any of it went to waste. Many nights, Mikaen practiced a different type of swordsmanship at Highmount’s palacio of pleasure serfs.

Nothing could be further from Kanthe’s life. As a second-born son, he was forbidden to touch a sword. In addition, with the exception of one rushed, embarrassing, flustered attempt, he was all but a virgin. It didn’t help matters that Kepenhill prohibited such pleasures—and Kanthe certainly didn’t stir the desires of women as soundly as his older twin did.

While Mikaen was all brightness and boldness, Kanthe took after their dead mother. His skin was burnished ebonwood, his hair as black as coal, his eyes a stormy gray. His manner was quieter like hers, too. He certainly preferred his own company.

To that end, while he was forbidden to wield a sword, he took up a hunter’s bow instead. His father had even encouraged this pursuit. Over the many centuries of his family’s rule, the Kingdom of Hálendii had carved a foothold across the breadth of the northern Crown. The expansion of their lands had been achieved less with swords and warships and more with plows, wood axes, and scythes. Taming the wilds was as important to securing their territory as fortifying its walls or building castles. Nature was as much an enemy to be conquered as any foreign army.

So, whenever freedom permitted, Kanthe took off into the rolling hills and patchwork forests of the Brauðlands to hunt and hone his skills, both sharpening his aim and heightening his ability to track and stalk. He entertained dreams of one day climbing the cliffs of Landfall to reach the misty forests of Cloudreach—and maybe even up to the jungled highlands of the Shrouds of Dalalæða, where few dared tread and even fewer returned.

But that’s likely never to be.

In fact, of late, such escapes had become harder and harder, especially the higher he climbed up Kepenhill’s tiers. His studies consumed more of his freedom. Because of that, he had grown to resent the school for keeping him trapped in Azantiia. To compensate, he discovered a new distraction. He learned that escape could be readily found at the bottom of a tankard.

It was how he found himself here, beset by lice and his head pounding.

Once dressed, he pulled a threadbare traveling cloak over his thin shoulders and ducked his head under its peaked hood. He headed out the door, down a crooked stair with several loose steps, and into the inn’s common room. A handful of fisherfolk occupied a table closest to the kitchen, ensuring they got the hottest meal.

The innkeep swiped a greasy rag across an oaken bar. “What about a bit of tucker?” he called over to Kanthe. “Got porridge with boiled oxfoot and griddled oatcake.”

Kanthe groaned. “As tempting as that sounds, I think I’ll beg off.” He jangled free his coin purse, pinched loose a silver ha’eyrie, and flipped it through the air. The coin bounced once and landed near the innkeep, who made it vanish with his rag. “For the night, with my thanks.”

“This be more’n enough, lad. Too much even,” the innkeep said with rare honesty.

“Ah.” Kanthe placed a palm on his belly. “But you’ve yet to see the state of the room you lent me.”

This earned a few knowing chuckles from the table of fisherfolk.

“Best imbibe what you can, laddie,” one of them called over, while gnawing on an oxfoot. It appeared more porridge had made it into his beard than down his gullet. “With the lordling’s fancy carousal coming up, Highmount’ll be draining us dry down here in the Nethers.”

Another nodded sagely. “You wait and see. They’ll be rolling all our best-est casks up into their castle.”

“Leaving us swill and dregs,” a third concurred.

The stout man with the porridge beard spit the bones of his oxfoot onto the table. “’Course, you know who’ll drink most of their stock.” He elbowed his neighbor. “The Tallywag!”

Laughter spread.

“The Trifle can’t be too happy,” another concurred.

“That’s certainly true,” Kanthe admitted dourly.

“Not with his bonny brother one step closer toward the throne.” Porridge Beard elbowed his other neighbor. “Especially if that Carcassa wench truly has pudding warming in her pot.”

More laughter followed.

With a half-hearted wave, Kanthe left them to their merriment and headed out of the inn. He grimaced at the sun, silently cursing the Father Above. To the west, thunder rumbled, as if scolding his blasphemy.

He growled under his breath.

It seemed no one was happy with the Tallywag.

Least of all me.

With a self-pitying groan, he shaded his eyes and stared up from the city’s Nethers toward the shining Crown of Highmount. He still had a long trek back to his dormitories at Kepenhill.

He lowered his face and tugged his hood higher, hiding his countenance from the Father Above. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the sun that should have concerned him. As he climbed the crooked streets, his head pounded with each step. The bright morning reflection in the windows stabbed at his bleary eyes.

He staggered onward, leaning on a wall every now and then, trying to hold his stomach in place. He nearly lost his footing as he crossed the mouth of a narrow alley. A hand caught him, steadying him.

“Good thanks to you,” Kanthe mumbled.

Only the same grip suddenly yanked him off the street and into the dark alleyway. More hands grabbed him, revealing a trio of brigands in shadowy cloaks. Panic iced through him at the threat. He cursed himself for letting his guard down—always a mistake in the Nethers, even in the brightness of the morning.

The point of a dagger in his side punctuated his lack of caution.

“Scream and die,” a voice warned in his ear as he was forced deeper into the alley.

Kanthe remembered the heft of his purse, the generosity of a silvery ha’eyrie tossed through the air to the barkeep. He should’ve known better than to be so careless with his coins. Generosity was seldom rewarded in the Nethers.

Once deep in the shadows, the thief hissed in his ear, “Looks like we caught ourselves a prince out of his cupboard.”

Kanthe stiffened. He had been reaching for his coin purse, ready to relinquish it. He now recognized that its weight of brass pinches and silver eyries would not buy him his freedom this morning. Even the Sodden Prince was worth more than a fistful of eyries.

As his head spun, Kanthe barked a half-laugh. He staggered as he tried to crane back at the thief with the dagger. “You… You think… just because I’m so handsomely dark that I’m a prince?” He guffawed his contempt.

The thief’s companion leaned closer, coming nose to nose with Kanthe. His breath reeked of stale beer and rotted teeth. “You sure it’s him, Fent?”

Taking this opportunity, Kanthe employed his only weapon. He unclenched the tenuous hold on his gut and heaved forth a thick stream of bile. The acidy spew struck the brigand square in the face.

The man fell back with a bellow, pawing at his burning eyes.

Kanthe used the momentary shock to slam his bootheel atop the instep of his captor. As the thief cried out, Kanthe spun out of the man’s grip. The dagger sliced through the fabric of his cloak, but the knife found no flesh. He kicked out with his other leg, catching the third man in the chest and slamming him into the far wall.

Kanthe did not wait and leaped away, driving for the street. He silently thanked the Cloudreach scout who taught him how to hunt, how to wield a bow, and more importantly, how to deal with the danger when a hunter became the prey. Sometimes flight is one’s greatest weapon, Bre’bran had instilled in him.

He took that lesson to heart and burst back into the brightness of the street. He jammed into the clutch of pedestrians, knocking a wrapped bundle from a woman’s arms.

“Sorry,” he gasped without stopping.

He reached the first cross street and took it. As he fled, he made a silent promise to himself.

To be more cautious in the future—and far less generous.

 

Kanthe panted heavily and covered his ears against the next bell’s ringing. It felt like the bronze clappers were clanging against the insides of his skull.

While he outwaited the noise, he cowered in the shadows of the tunnel that passed through the Stormwall. Searching behind him for any sign of pursuit, he leaned his shoulder against its massive bricks.

The furlong-thick fortification had once marked the outermost boundary of Azantiia, protecting the city for thousands of years from the fierce storms that would sweep off the sea and into the Bay of Promise. It had also shielded Azantiia from more than foul weather. Its colossal mass had been burrowed through long ago with armories and barracks, its outer face peppered with arrowslits. Untold numbers of armies had shattered against its ramparts— not that any had dared try to for centuries.

Though if rumors of war proved true, its battlements might soon be tested again. Skirmishes were growing along the southern borders. Attacks on the kingdom’s trading ships occurred with greater frequency.

As the ringing ended, Kanthe continued down the tunnel and out the opposite end, leaving the Nethers behind him—and hopefully a certain trio of thieves. Still, he kept a wary watch all around him.

Over the passing centuries, Azantiia could no longer be constrained by the Stormwall. It had spread in all directions, even out into the bay itself, building atop packed siltfields, requiring the dockworks to be extended farther and farther out.

Unfortunately, the storms still came.

Thunder rumbled behind him as a reminder.

The Nethers outside the walls were subject to sudden floods, with large swaths often drowned or blown away. But such areas were quickly rebuilt. It was said the Nethers were as variable as the weather. Maps of the place were drawn more with hope than on any measure of wayglass or sexton—and certainly never with the permanency of ink.

Beyond the Stormwall, Kanthe continued into the city proper, known as the Midlins. Under the protection of that massive fortification, homes here grew taller, some towering half the height of the wall’s battlements. Many of the buildings’ foundations had been built upon older foundations, one regency burying another, stacking up like the pages of a book, a history writ in stone.

The Midlins was also where most of the city’s wealth settled, flowing from all directions: from the bountiful farms of the surrounding Brauðlands, from the mines of Guld’guhl to the east, from the western ranches of Aglerolarpok. Everything flowed through the Nethers and into the Midlins, ending at last at the heights of Highmount, the castle-city at the center of Azantiia.

As Kanthe continued, the fly-plagued butcheries closer to Stormwall became quaint hostelries, dressmakers, cobblers—and the farther he climbed, silversmiths and jewelers appeared, along with banks and financiers. Homes became adorned with flowering window boxes. Small perfumed gardens dotted the way, often walled and behind spiked gates. At these heights, the air was salted from a near continuous blow off the bay, washing away the reek and filth of the Nethers.

With a final look around, he allowed his heart to stop pounding, feeling certain he had escaped the thieves. As he continued, he dodged his way upward through the growing throngs. Wagons and carts—the ever-flowing blood of the city—plied streets and alleyways, pulled by ponies or dehorned oxen.

A shout burst behind him, accompanied by the snap of a whip. “Aye! Out the way with ya!”

Kanthe ducked aside as a huge wagon laden with wine casks, doubly stacked, headed toward the glare of Silvergate, the towering ornate doors into Highmount. He watched the horses rush past him and remembered the fisherfolk’s words at the Point’d Blade.

Seems those men had been right to be concerned about their future drinks.

Kanthe also noted how these upper streets were festooned with hundreds of flags, adorned with the sigil of the House of Massif: a dark crown set against the six points of a golden sun. In fact, the walls of Highmount had been patterned after that sun on the sigil, constructed when his family’s house had assumed the throne four hundred and sixteen years ago.

Long may we rule, he thought sourly. Not that I ever will—or even want to.

Still, a twinge of loss pained him. When he was much younger, he would often return heartsick to his rooms at Highmount. It was the only home he had ever known. He and Mikaen had once been inseparable, the best of friends as only twins can be. But even such bonds could not withstand the destinies that pulled them in opposite directions.

Over time, Kanthe’s visits grew less and less.

Which certainly suited their father.

As the king’s pride in his bright son grew, his tolerance for his darker son lessened. Cold-shouldered rebuffs became fiery affronts or accusations. And maybe that was part of the reason Kanthe had found himself at the Point’d Blade, with his head aching and his stomach churning. Maybe it was to validate his father’s disdain of him.

To spare them both, Kanthe had learned to avoid Highmount. But in eight days, he would have to pass through Silvergate once more.

A fierce gust blew through the streets, pushed by the approaching storm. Flags snapped overhead. A few were now emblazoned with the horned head of an ox, marking the House of Carcassa, who secured their wealth from a hundred ranchholds throughout the Brauðlands and the Aglerolarpok territories. While wagons might be the blood of the city, Carcassa put the meat on the bones of all these lands.

He scowled at the bright flags of the two houses. With each snap of cloth, they signaled that Kanthe’s days as the Prince in the Cupboard were coming to an end.

A week ago, his brother had made the surprising announcement of his betrothal to Lady Myella of the noble House of Carcassa. They were due to marry in eight days. Supposedly the quick date had been picked to match when Mikaen had been born, marking the prince’s seventeenth birthyear. Though whispers—like those in the tavern—wondered if such a hasty marriage might have another explanation, that perhaps Lady Myella was already with child. Of course, to speak such a rumor aloud risked getting one’s tongue cut out.

Either way, it seemed Mikaen’s march to the throne—with maybe a new heir apparent on his way—was assured. From here on out, Kanthe’s role in life was at best counsel to the king. It was why he had been sent to Kepenhill, to be properly schooled for his future position on the king’s council. And he should be grateful for the opportunity. From his historical studies at school, he knew many royal twins were not granted such a boon. Often cupboard-born princes found themselves shoved off their shelf, with a dagger in their side as a parting gift, lest there be any question of lineage that could bolster a future insurrection.

Though no one seemed to place such ambitions upon Kanthe.

Just as well.

He turned off Silverstreet and headed south, where a tall mound had been carved and sculpted into the ancient school of Kepenhill. Its nine tiers climbed to the height of Highmount’s walls, with the ninth peering over its top. Twin pyres burned at the school’s summit, ever smoking with incense and alchymies, beckoning him back to his home in exile.

Resigned to his role, he headed back to school. Upon reaching Kepenhill, he hurried through the school gate and began the long climb to the eighth tier. He kept rooms at that level—or, at least, for another twelve days—then he would advance to the ninth and last tier of the school.

But what after that?

He shook his head, deciding to leave such mysteries to another day— when hopefully his skull did not feel like it was about to break at the seams.

By the time he reached the eighth tier, he had sweated away the worst of his carousing. Even his sour stomach growled demandingly. He considered skipping past his rooms and going to the commons to see if he might grab a bit of cold larder, but he thought better of it, remembering the state of the room at the inn.

Best not risk fouling another bed.

He ducked out of the sun and into the eighthyear dormitory hall. His rooms dwarfed most of his fellow students’ austere cells. His bedchamber’s window faced Highmount, as if taunting him in his exile. Upon arriving at this level, he had shuttered that window and never opened it again.

Finally, he reached his door and found a sealed scroll tacked to its frame.

He sighed, wondering what trouble plagued him now. He snatched the parchment from the door, ripping it slightly. Out of habit, he made sure the blood-red wax seal was intact. In the hall’s torchlight, he recognized the sigil—a book bound in chains—hinting at the forbidden knowledge locked in the ancient tome.

The symbol of Kepenhill.

The knot of tension between his shoulders relaxed. Better this than the sigil of a dark crown against a golden sun. Any word from Highmount was bound to be bad for him.

He broke the seal and unrolled the scroll. He recognized the tidy hand of Alchymist Frell. The man had been his tutor and mentor since he had first entered Kepenhill. For such an esteemed scholar, it had to be a frustrating and—more often than not—fruitless task. Still, Frell persevered with a bottomless well of patience.

Or maybe it was pity.

Holding the scroll closer to a torch, he read what was written there.

Prince Kanthe ry Massif,

There be a matter of some import that I wish to address in confidence. If you would be so kind to join me in my private scholarium at your earliest convenience. It is a subject of some urgency and requiring an equal measure of discretion. Alas, I believe the resolution thereof will require a man of your status and circumspection.

Kanthe groaned, picturing the soothing lyeleaf bath he had been dreaming of during the long climb here. It would have to be put off. While the note’s wording was genteel and one of invitation, he had no trouble gleaning the order written therein. As one of the school’s Council of Eight, Frell was not to be ignored. Even worse, the summons had been posted yesterday— well after Kanthe had already started his slow slide down to a lice-ridden bed in the Nethers.

He crumpled up the parchment and turned his back on the door. He wondered what this summons could possibly be about. But from experience, he could guess the answer.

Nothing but trouble for me.

 

12

Kanthe stood at an ironwood door branded with the sigil of Kepenhill. The only additional adornment to the mark was a silver mortar and pestle, representing the alchymists. Across the eighth tier was another locked door with a similar symbol, only its book bore a gold star, representing the hieromonks.

Kanthe had never passed through that other door.

From under his longshirt, he pulled free a heavy iron key that hung from a loop of braided leather. Though he had unlocked this particular door a thousand times during his eight years at Kepenhill, he still felt a twinge of trepidation. He turned the key and swung the door open. Past the threshold, a narrow stair spiraled upward and downward. These steps were only allowed to be used by those who had achieved the Highcryst of alchymy.

Or in Kanthe’s case, a prince who had been assigned a tutor of that order.

With a steadying breath, he ascended the steps. The staircase ran from the first tier at the base of Kepenhill all the way up to the ninth tier. It allowed the alchymists to traverse the levels of the school and not be disturbed by the scrabble who ran up and down the outer steps. Overhead, the spiral ended within the confines of the half circle of towers reserved for alchymical studies on the ninth tier.

A similar stair, reserved for the hieromonks, ran from bottom to top on the other side of Kepenhill, ending in the towers committed to religious studies and devotions. Not that Kanthe had ever traversed that path—or had any interest in ever doing so.

He reached the top of the stairs where an archway—carved with all manner of arcane alchymical symbols—led out into a cavernous main hall. He kept his head down and slunk across the stone floor. Above, a massive iron candelabrum glowed with strange flames that flickered in different hues. The centermost and largest bore a black flame that expelled a stream of white smoke.

He hurried under it, holding his breath.

The very air of the hall smacked of arcane mysteries, thick with the scent of bitter chymistries and hair-tingling energies of a thunderstorm. This sense was likely heightened by his own unease. He knew well the condemnation of anyone who trespassed onto the ninth tier without proper invitation. It was certainly forbidden to students.

Kanthe had special dispensation—not so much because he was a prince of the realm, but due to the esteem of the man who tutored him. No one expected Frell to traipse up and down the school to deal with the Prince in the Cupboard. Instead, it was Kanthe who made this climb—shorter now that he had reached his eighthyear—nearly every other day.

After so many years, the other alchymists had worn past their initial shock at the sight of him. With the exception of a few annoyed glares, he was mostly ignored now—which was not much different than how his fellow students treated him. Some continued to avoid him out of jealousy, spite, or resentment at this privilege. Others had tried to curry favor initially, but after years of failure, they eventually gave up and joined the others in their disdain.

A loud boom made Kanthe jump nearly out of his boots. It came from somewhere above him. He ducked his head, picturing some experiment gone awry. Muffled shouting from the same direction reinforced this assumption. Each alchymist here had his or her own private scholarium in which to conduct studies.

Kanthe rushed to the far side of the main hall and down a curved hall lined by torches and age-blackened oils of the school’s most famous scholars. He reached the doorway into the westernmost tower and climbed yet another set of steps that wound to the very top of this spire. It was where Alchymist Frell secured his own scholarium.

He reached a simple oaken door and rapped his knuckles against it. He had no idea if Frell was still here, especially as the summons was a day old.

“Hold!” a voice shouted back at him.

As Kanthe waited, a nervous shiver shook through him.

Finally, a bolt scraped on the door’s far side, which surprised Kanthe. Frell seldom barred his private rooms. If anything, the man was more than happy to drone on and on about his work or get into heated discussions with other brothers or sisters of his order. He even welcomed input from the hieromonks on his work. It was this cooperative nature that likely granted him a seat on the Council of Eight, the youngest person to have ever achieved such an honor.

The door cracked open enough for Frell to peer out into the hall. The man let out an exasperated sigh and hauled the door the rest of the way open.

“Remind me to tutor you on the definition of urgency again,” Frell scolded. “Now get yourself in here.”

Kanthe stumbled inside and waited while Frell secured the door behind him. He gaped at the state of the scholarium—not to mention the scholar himself.

What is going on?

Normally Frell’s spaces were orderly to the point of fussiness: books neatly aligned on shelves, scrolls ordered in their numbered cubbies, worktables free of even a speck of dust. Kanthe had understood the need for such tidiness. The space was packed from floor to vault. It was part ancient librarie, part scholarly study, and part hall of curiosities. Arcane apparatus—some glass, others bronze—rested on shelves or had been set up on tables, sometimes bubbling with elixirs and strange chymistries. And while windows looked out in every direction, they were usually—like now—shuttered tight to preserve the integrity of the precious texts kept here. Still, the room glowed with a scatter of oil lamps, their flames kept behind glass amidst all the parchment and vellum in the room.

But no longer.

“What happened here?” Kanthe asked.

Frell ignored him and hurried past with a swish of his black robe, belted at the waist with a crimson sash. The alchymist was twice Kanthe’s age and a head taller in height. His dark ruddy hair had been tied to a tail in the back. Normally his features were shaven and bare, but his cheeks were shadowed with stubble. His eyes—which had always been wrinkled at the corners from his constant squinting at faded ink—were lined deeper and shadowed below. It looked as if the man hadn’t slept in days and had aged a decade because of it.

Frell waved to Kanthe. “Come with me.”

Kanthe followed his mentor toward the room’s center. The place looked as if a gale had blustered through it. Books were stacked everywhere. Scrolls had been knocked and forgotten on the floor. Most of the oil lamps dotted one long table that had been dragged from a wall and positioned alongside the scholarium’s chief apparatus—a device that also appeared to be the eye of this particular storm.

Kanthe joined Frell at the long bronze scope in the room’s center. Its base was bolted atop a wheeled gear, while the far end poked through a sealed gap in the tower roof. The shaft of the huge scope was twice the size of his own thigh and lined by polished crystals and mirrors in some arcane design.

Frell leaned over a sheaf of parchment strewn atop the nearby table. He rubbed his chin, while his other hand hovered over a row of crystal inkwells—each a different color—with quills resting in them. “Let me mark this before I forget my calculations. With the moon no longer at its fullness, I must record what I can.”

He selected a quill from an azure inkwell and shifted one of the parchments closer. He quickly and neatly jotted down a series of numbers next to a detailed depiction of the moon’s face.

Kanthe used the time to furtively glance around. He spotted a spiral ribbon of black oilskin, recognizing a missive carried by a skrycrow. What was written there could not be discerned, but he noted a prominent sigil on one side. It was similar to Kepenhill’s own mark, only the tiny book inscribed on the missive was not bound in chains but tangled in a vine of thorny nettles. He knew that sigil.

The Cloistery.

It was the school where Frell had originally been taught.

Kanthe returned his attention to the alchymist, who had finished his notation and frowned up the length of the bronze scope, as if trying to peer through the roof. Frell’s studies concentrated on the mysteries of the skies, what the hieromonks ascribed to be the lofty sphere of the gods. Kanthe knew that Frell sought to understand what was written in the movement and pattern of stars—though most of his studies had to be reserved to the winter, when the sun sat at its lowest and the barest peek of stars became visible across their section of the Crown.

Kanthe could guess the reason for Frell’s interest in the skies. The man had grown up at the Crown’s westernmost edge, in the shadow of the Ice Fangs, marking the boundary between the Crown and the frozen wastes beyond the mountains. In those territories, the Father Above shone pale, if at all. Frell had once described the spill of stars visible from there, but Kanthe could hardly imagine it.

Here in the starless Crown, Frell had focused his study on what was most readily visible in these skies. Kanthe glanced down to the sheaf of papers, noting the detailed drawing of the moon, freshly inked and swathed in cabalistic notations, lines, measurements, all in different colors. It was quite beautiful in a cold and frightening way.

The other papers sharing the table appeared far older, yellowed by age, the ink faded to near obscurity, but all appeared to delve into the same mystery.

The moon…

Frell finally sighed and gave a shake of his head. “Maybe I’m addled, or moonstruck by the Son and Daughter into delusions.”

“Why do you say that?” Kanthe asked. He had never heard Frell doubt himself, which disturbed him far more than he would expect. In many ways, the alchymist had been his rock throughout his turbulent youth. “What has so suddenly vexed you?”

“It’s not that I’m so suddenly vexed. It’s just that I can no longer deny a hard truth. I can no longer perch in my scholarium, read ancient texts, and continue my idle measurements. Studies can only carry one so far. Eventually speculation becomes inevitability.”

“I don’t understand. What’s inevitable?”

Frell reached over and gripped Kanthe’s arm. “That the world will come to an end, that the gods intend to destroy us.”

 

Excerpted from The Starless Crown, copyright © 2021 by James Rollins

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