Meet Graylin 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.


 

26

Graylin hunted the Rimewood with his two brothers.

He had been following the frost-elk for most of the day, passing deep into the eternal twilight of the far western forest. He stepped with care, settling each hide-boot into the litter of dry needles without a rustle. His fingers reached high to test a deep scrape in the bark of a silver cedar. He felt the sticky fresh sap. He brought his hand down, smelling pitch and the musk of the bull’s mark.

Close now…

He had not planned to travel this far into the forest. Few dared to risk the western ranges of the Rimewood. While the eastern edges, closer to the sea, were green and bright, the western forests remained forever locked in twilight. Forbidden the warmth of the Father Above, the trees sapped what strength they could with wide splays of dense needles and survived due to roots that dug deep, lined by large sulfurous galls that fed them. And despite the lack of His grace, the ancient heartwoods of the western Rime grew into giants. Some were so large that it would take twenty men with outstretched arms to encircle their trunks.

Only once had Graylin dared venture into those huge woods. It had been a decade ago, shortly after he had been banished here, back when he was too foolish to know better. He never intended to trek that far again.

Not that there weren’t enough dangers in this deep wood.

With a grind of his teeth, he concentrated on his current hunt. The shred of claws on a black pine reminded him to take heed. The ironhard bark had been gouged deep. It was the mark of a knoll-bear, whose sows grew to the size of black-furred boulders twice his height, and the boars even larger.

He ran a hand over the scrapes.

Mayhap it’s best if I abandon this trail…

His gut-sense warned him that he had traveled too far. Still, the mark in the pine was an old one, crusted with stony sap, and in the distance a mournful lowing drew him onward, rising from the throat of the frost-elk. He had picked this particular bull after watching a herd move through the valley near his cabin. From the spread of the bull’s antlers—with broken points and covered in fringes of moss—it was an old one. He had watched it hobble on one hindlimb. The leg had been scarred long ago from what looked like an old lion attack.

Graylin related with this noble beast, as he bore many scars of his own. He also knew, come winter, how the frigid cold would pain the creature. He imagined this was the bull’s last summer, a summer already half gone. With the first snows, the hobbled bull would not keep up with the rest of the herd as it moved to warmer pastures. Abandoned, the beast would starve or be savagely mauled.

Then this morning, as Graylin spied upon the herd from a deadfall, the bull elk had headed away from the herd, drifting west on its own. Maybe it would’ve eventually returned, but Graylin sent his two brothers to further divide it, to drive it farther away.

With the choice made, Graylin had tracked after it. Though the elk was old, the bull proved its craftiness, honed from its decades in the bitter Rime. Even with his two brothers tracking it, he nearly lost the bull’s trail twice. Graylin also suspected the frost-elk’s path toward the ice-fogged bowers of the deeper wood was intended to shake off the hunters behind it, as if daring them to follow. But Graylin continued his pursuit, feeling a responsibility for separating the bull from the herd.

As he stalked deeper, he came upon a heartwood. It was a small one, maybe a century old, still white-barked, a lone outcast from the greater forest to the west. He kissed a thumb and placed his palm against its trunk, feeling an affinity with this lonely sentinel. He also took it as a signpost and read its meaning.

Pass no farther.

He stopped and eyed an open glade ahead, split by a silvery stream. He whistled like a woodthrush to his brothers. He knew the pair had already ventured far ahead, circling past the old bull. He rushed forward, still minding dead branches and brittle needles. From off his shoulder, he rounded his ash bow into his hands. As he closed on the misty glade, he slipped an arrow from his quiver and placed its haft between his lips. In the meadow, a large antlered shadow drank from a stream whispering over polished stones.

He crossed to the tree line and stayed in the shadows, keeping downwind.

The elk lifted its head with no sign of panic. Still, its ears stood tall, facing toward the dark woods ahead. Velvety nostrils flared as it huffed. It surely scented the danger but remained in the open, only roughing a forehoof in the grass. It shook its antlers, challenging what hid in the forest’s shadows, ready for one final battle, too proud to run any farther, showing no fear, only a tired resignation.

Graylin also understood this stance and would honor it as best he could.

He reached to the arrow at his mouth and drew its fletching across his lips, wetting the feathers. He bent his knees, nocked the arrow, and drew the string until his fingertip found the corner of his lips. He tilted the bow slightly away from the arrow, aimed for the whorl of fur behind the elk’s front leg, then gently released the taut string.

The arrow shot away. Graylin followed it with his hunter’s sense. He could almost feel the impact of the bolt through fur and skin, sensed it cross ribs and impale a proud, tired heart. The elk only shuddered, took a single step, then with a great majesty, toppled to the grass beside the stream.

Graylin straightened and walked out of the woods toward the bulk of the downed elk. He silently thanked the Mother Below—both for the bounty given to him and for the long life bestowed upon the old bull.

He loosened a pack slung low to his hip and removed knives and unfolded roughspun sacks. He set about quartering the elk. It was cold enough that he kept the skin on the meat. He had a long haul back to his cabin, so he stripped out the bones to lighten his load. As he worked, he built a steaming pile of bowels beside the stream to feed the forest after he left.

Unfortunately, these woods had little patience and far more hunger.

A rumbling growl was the only warning.

He froze, skinning knife in hand.

Beyond the stream, a huge shadow separated from the forest. The knoll-bear ambled toward him. It was a rounded hill of shag and rolling muscle. Its head was a stony crown topped by round ears. Thick jowls rippled back in tune with a grumbled threat, exposing fangs as long as his forearm. He remembered the deep claw marks in the black pine and suspected here was the culprit, a full-grown sow. Off to the side, he noted a pair of eyes glinting deeper in the wood, surely a summer cub.

The bear’s shoulders shifted, its haunches bunching, readying for a charge.

There was nothing more dangerous than a sow with a hungry cub. And nothing that these giant monsters had to fear in these woods.

But Graylin hadn’t come alone.

And his companions were not from these forests.

Out of the shadows to either side of the bear, his two brothers stalked into view. They looked like wolves, only a handsbreadth taller in the front. No growl marked their approach. No fangs were bared. They slunk low, a staccato chittering flowing from them. It escalated in volume and pitch, raising hairs on his neck.

The bear stopped with a tremble. Its large head swiveled between the two approaching beasts. It recognized the threat, as did all who lived here.

The vargr were the scourge of the heartwoods. Their dark-striped fur was nearly impossible to discern amidst the fog and darkness. Some considered them more spirits than flesh, just shadows with teeth. The vargr seldom roamed east of their shrouded forests, but when they did, no one dared cross them.

The sow heeded this warning and backed step by step. Even if she chanced taking on the pair, she had her cub to consider. Wisely, she retreated into the forest, and a moment later her large bulk could be heard barging away.

The two vargr finally bent their necks, ruffed by short manes, toward him. Two sets of amber-gold eyes stared at him. Still, his brothers’ tufted ears remained turned back toward the forest, continuing to listen to the bear’s retreat.

Born of the same litter, the two looked identical, but Graylin could pick out subtle differences that seemed glaring to him after so long. The mischievous Aamon was a fingersbreadth shorter than his brother, with one ear that always hung slightly crooked when relaxed. The more stoic Kalder had thinner stripes across his haunches and a bushier tail.

Still, they were two kindred spirits bearing one heart.

And they allow me to share it for now.

Graylin pressed a hand to his chest, then turned the palm toward them, silently thanking them. He owed them his life, not just now, but many times over, especially a decade ago. As he worked on dressing the elk, he fell back into that darker time. He remembered a glint of moonlight on snow, marking where the Crown ended and the endless frozen wastes began.

 

I’ve reached the end of the world.

With the day over, Graylin gazed at the full face of the moon hanging bright in the sky through the thin, high branches of the heartwood forest. He stood mesmerized. A swath of stars—a rare sight in his homeland in Hálendii—spangled the dark arch above, sparkling like a crush of diamonds. And farther to the west, a serrated line of silver marked the jagged peaks of the Ice Fangs. They glowed as if lit from within, a jagged rampart that marked the Crown’s westernmost border.

He tried to imagine the frozen lands beyond that snowy range, but all he could picture was an endless plain of broken ice.

And maybe that’s all there is.

He was new to the lands of Aglerolarpok. Three fortnights ago, he had arrived on a prison ship. He and a handful of others had been dumped in Savik, banished and forbidden from ever setting foot in Hálendii again. He had barely healed from the tortures in the dungeons of Highmount. His flesh was knitted with raw sutures; more wounds had been burned closed. His broken arm had healed crookedly and still hurt to move. Still, if not for the compassion of the king for a former friend, he could have lost toes, fingers, an eye or two, and likely both bollocks.

He knew it was that same mercy that led to his banishment across the seas. He understood the punishment. King Toranth could no longer look at me—yet, couldn’t bring himself to kill me.

So, after his tortures, broken inside and out, Graylin had been stranded here, a knight forever prohibited from carrying steel. Some might call it mercy. He considered it one final torture that was intended to last a lifetime. He was sentenced to forever remember his broken oath and what it had cost him. Even now, with the wondrous spread of stars in the sky, he could picture the remains of his lover, Marayn, thrown into his dungeon cell. Her body—the little that was left of it—had been discovered in the swamps of Mýr. They left her remains in his cell, flybit and maggoty, to serve as a horrific testament to his broken oath.

As he stood in the dark heartwood, he took a deep breath of the cold air. He lowered his eyes, feeling unworthy to gaze at the pantheon above. Still, the natural beauty around him could not be ignored. Here at the edge of the world, the heartwood trees were giant gray columns, enshrined in wisps of ice fog. The march of their trunks glowed with rafts and conks of phosphorescent fungi, while the bowers created lofty vaults overhead, allowing peeks at the sky’s splendor.

It was as if he had trespassed into a living kath’dral, a holy shrine to the Mother, hidden away from the gaze of the Father Above.

He came to one firm conclusion.

This is a good place to die.

From deeper in the woods, this desire was given voice. A single ghostly cry, eerie and high-pitched, echoed to him. The birdsong fell silent. Even the chirp-chirp of beetles in the low bushes hushed in respect. Then another throat joined the first, then another, until an entire chorus wailed at him.

Every hair on his body shook. His heart pounded in an age-old tympani of the hunted. He had heard tales of the predators that haunted the deep heartwood. The shadows with teeth. But he had not truly believed them, dismissing stories of their bollock-icing cries, their savage cunning, of jaws powerful enough to crush an ox’s skull. He thought such tales to be just fancy and boast. Especially as Graylin had raised war dogs at the Legionary himself, even some who bore the blood of wolves. So, tales of the shadowy monsters in the mists sounded preposterous to him.

Now, Graylin knew all those stories to be true. It had been foolhardy to trek this far. Though, in truth, it was not foolishness, but despondency, that drove him westward. Deep down, he knew he had crossed to the edge of the world to find his own end, to seek a death that had been denied him.

And now it comes for me.

Only in that moment, faced with the inevitable, did he recognize an even deeper truth about himself: how quickly a longing for death could be dashed by a dagger at one’s throat.

He turned and fled through the heartwood, finally seeing what had been buried under his grief and shame.

A will to live.

But it was a realization that had come too late. The pack howled and screamed their eerie cries, chasing after him. It was impossible to know how far back they were. He simply ran wildly through the wood, stumbling over dark bushes, bouncing off trunks. His heart pounded; his vision narrowed. He aimed for the distant brighter forests, but he knew he would never make it. The pack went ominously silent behind him. He expected the mists to shatter into lunging bodies and snapping teeth at any moment.

Then the dark Daughter, the eternal Huntress, showed him mercy.

From ahead, a plaintive mewling rose out of the lightening mists, a forlorn piping of distress. His path veered toward it. It was not a conscious act, but more as if the crying was a form of inescapable bridle-song that pulled at his bruised heart. He thrashed in that direction—only to fall headlong over a body in the brush.

He sprawled hard and rolled around.

Panting and wild-eyed, he discovered a mound of striped fur draped across the forest floor. Though he had only seen a single pelt, he knew it had to be a vargr, one who had died recently. The mewling rose from its far side. He peered over and discovered two squirming cubs, maybe a moon or two old, struggling for cold nipples. He also saw the clamp of iron jaws on the mother’s hindleg, the limb plainly broken and soaked in blood. The tale was easy to read. The she-vargr must have ventured into the brighter woods to hunt for her young, only to fall prey to the cruelties of a Rimehunter’s trap. Still, the beast had pulled the chain’s stake free and dragged herself back to the heartwood, back to her litter—where she eventually died, but not before offering her cubs one last meal.

He couldn’t explain his next act. Maybe it was to honor her efforts before he died himself, or maybe his action was born out of the guilt for a child he could not save.

No matter, he grabbed for the cubs. They hissed and snapped, savage even at such a young age. One caught the meat of his thumb and nearly took it off. The pair then darted into a nearby den in the hollow of a moldering log.

He considered abandoning them, especially with the hunters surely closing in on him. Instead, he swore under his breath. He reached to the she-vargr and squeezed cold milk across his hands. It was a trick he had learned in the Legionary’s kennels. He crawled to the log, draped his cloak across the mulch, and opened his palms. He used the scent of milk and mother to lure the cubs out of hiding. One crept forward, growling, shadowed by the other. They had to be starving.

Once the cubs were close enough, more sniffing than snarling now, he snatched one in each hand. He quickly bundled them up in his cloak. The pair fought and tore and bawled, trying to rip their way out, and were likely to succeed.

He searched around, then yanked his hunting knife from its sheath and sliced off the she-vargr’s tail. He rubbed it across the weeping teats and tossed its length inside his cloak. He cradled the bundle up in his arms. The thrashing cubs had already begun to settle to a wary rumble. The fur of their mother and the soak of her milk calmed them enough for exhaustion to set in and subdue them.

Lucky to still be alive, he stood up.

But it wasn’t luck.

He found an arc of glinting eyes staring out of the heartwood at him. His heart pounded harder. He cursed his foolishness at stopping, but he also did not regret it. He had once failed another desperate mother.

Let this be a small act of atonement before I die.

But the eyes just continued to shine at him. He held his ground, accepting what was to come, maybe even welcoming it now.

Then one pair of eyes vanished, then another, and another. Soon the forest was dark and silent. He took a shaky step away, waited, then risked another. But those eyes never reappeared. He did not know if the vargr were mystified by his strange act of mercy. Or maybe it was the scent of milk and cubs that masked him, confused them.

For whatever reason, they allowed him to go.

He accepted their gift of his life and fled back to brighter woods.

 

Finished dressing the elk, Graylin let go of the past and stared appreciatively at the pair of full-grown vargr, his brothers of the hunt. Not only had he survived that fateful brush with death in the heartwood, raising the pair had given him a reason to live.

He straightened from his labors. With still no sign of the knoll-bear’s return, he called them.

“Aamon, Kalder, to me.”

They trotted over, leaping the stream to join him. He bent down and split away two lobes off the elk’s liver and tossed one to each. They savaged into the raw flesh, then returned to patrolling the edges of the forest while he fashioned a crude travois out of roped branches. He piled his meat on top of it and set about for home, dragging the sled and whistling for his brothers to follow.

The path back was thankfully downhill. It took half the time to return to within a quarter league of his cabin. He stopped long enough to strip his clothing and dive naked into an icy blue tarn. He rinsed the blood, sweat, and bile from his body and used the cold to numb the ache in his limbs and joints. With a final quake of frigid limbs, he climbed out and buffed himself dry with an empty roughspun sack.

As he did so, he caught a glimpse of his reflection in the slowly settling lake. He read the map of his scars, the veins of gray in his black hair and scruff of beard. But as the waters shimmered, he allowed himself to imagine how he had once looked, before he broke an oath. A hale knight of strong muscle, straight limbs, and with hair as black as oiled soot and eyes of a silvery blue.

On the bank, he ran a palm over the ruff of his chest hair, trying to remember his former self. He still felt strong muscles, but they were leaner and harder now. His fingers traced the gnarled scars, the broken nose, the knot in his jaw. His hip joints ached, and his left forearm had a crook to it.

This is who I am now, disgraced and banished and broken.

With a scowl, he turned his back on the illusion in the water. That shimmering knight was long dead. And to most of the world, so was the man. And in some ways, he had died in that heartwood a decade ago. The hunter who returned with two squalling vargr cubs was not the same one who had entered that dark wood.

He found Aamon and Kalder sitting on their haunches, staring back at him. Aamon gave a sweep of his tail, and Kalder simply narrowed his eyes. He met their uncompromising regard. Their gazes were not so much loving as tolerant. He knew these two were not lapdogs. Despite heeding his command and learning a hundred hand signals, they remained beasts of the field, as likely to turn on him as not, if the winds should shift. He accepted that as part of their pact and would have it no other way.

May you always hold me to a hard account, my brothers.

Still, he found himself grateful for their attention and company. It was difficult to remain morose when he had such stalwart companions.

“At least someone still finds value in me,” he muttered to them, donning his clothes. “Even if it’s just to fill your bellies.”

He got them all moving again. He followed a stream that drained the tarn. It ambled a meandering track through bosky wooded hills. The forests grew slowly greener, going from dark pines to a mix of oaks, mountainash, and maples. The stream became dotted with large willows. The bushes thickened with juniper and peashrubs. The ice in the mists melted to a simple chill in the air. Even with the day nearing an end, it brightened as they climbed the last hill toward home.

The cabin he had built from local timber stood atop the next rise. He had chosen this spot as it balanced between the greener woods that stretched to the sea and the twilight forests thick with freezing fogs to the west. It was also remote enough that few, if any, ever chanced upon his cabin. And no one ever visited.

So, he stopped at the bottom of the hill, studying the sod roof of his cabin. A thin stream of smoke rose from the stone chimney, promising the warmth of home and a hot meal.

Still, a chill of trepidation swept through him.

When he had left this morning, his hearth had been cold.

 

27

Graylin crouched at the edge of his homestead, sticking to the shadows of the tree line. He searched the back gardens, already sprouting with a summer’s leafy bounty of lettuce, purple squash, ripe bloodapples, along with a patch of stalky hardcorn. He eyed the smokehouse to the right of his one-room cabin and a small barn where he kept a lone pony and wagon for trading down in the town of Savik near the coast.

He spotted no one skulking about, but the chimney continued to smoke.

Graylin signaled his brothers who guarded to either side. He softly nickered for their attention, then placed his palms together and opened them, spreading his arms wide before bringing his palms together. It was a command they knew well: CIRCLE AND GUARD.

The pair split off, going opposite directions, keeping to the forest’s edge. Their senses were far sharper than his. If there were any strangers hidden, they would soon regret their trespass.

With his back guarded, Graylin ran low to the barn and peeked inside. He saw his Aglerolarpok pony drowsing in his stall, but another horse had been tethered at the gate. It shifted nervously, maybe scenting the circling vargr.

He sidled over to the smokehouse, fingered the door open, and except for the slabs of salted, dried meat, it was empty. By now, he was less nervous and more irritated. He reached the timber-framed cabin and peered through a window. Lit by the hearth, a cloaked figure sat on a chair near the fire. His chin rested on his chest as if asleep, but the puffs of smoke around the glow of a pipe suggested otherwise. The trespasser’s arm lifted, and without glancing up, the man waved at the window, plainly inviting Graylin into his own house.

Spotting no one else in the cabin, he cursed aloud and crossed around to his front door. He kept a dagger in hand as he entered. The scent of woodsmoke and smoldering rakeleaf greeted him back home. The room was simply furnished with a thick oaken table to one side near a rise of shelves stacked with dry goods and other necessities. The bed was a frame with a thick mattress stuffed with goose feathers and blanketed in furs, the only bit of luxury about the place. A few dark oil lamps hung from hooks.

The figure shifted, stretching in the chair, like a lazy cat waking from a half-slumber. He was a firm-bodied man with a slight paunch to his belly from too much ale. He had slate-gray hair braided to the back and a scruff of several days’ growth of the same over cheek and chin. Under his heavy traveler’s cloak, he wore baggy breeches and a stained tunic laced to his throat. He had removed his boots, which he had set by the fire. Both his woolen hosen had large holes at heel and toe.

“I see you made yourself at home, Symon.”

The visitor’s green eyes sparkled with amusement at Graylin’s exasperation. “How could I not? You expect me to freeze my bollocks off while I wait for you all day?”

“Why are you here?”

“How’re the pups?” Symon asked, shifting around to stare out the window.

“I’m more than happy to have them greet you if you don’t answer my question.”

Symon held up a palm and took a long puff on his pipe, ripening the glow in the bowl. “That’s okay. No reason to bother the boys. I’ll trust the pair are doing fine.”

“What’s this all about? Why are you here?”

Symon waved for Graylin to bring the stool from the table, as if he owned the place. Graylin had never bothered with a second fireside chair as he didn’t invite or tolerate visitors. He had company enough with Aamon and Kalder.

Still, he dragged the stool closer to the hearth, curiosity getting the better of him. Symon hy Ralls served as his trading partner in Savik, helping him barter for goods he needed up here in the wilds—which made him as close to a friend as one could muster out here. Symon was also one of the few people who knew Graylin’s true identity, something he kept obscured by using a false name, which he changed regularly.

Such a deception would have never worked with Symon anyway. While Graylin plied his trade in furs and dried meats, Symon dealt in secrets and whispered words. Also, the two knew each other long before Graylin’s arrival, going back two decades. Symon had been an alchymist at Kepenhill, and their paths had crossed periodically, mostly in taverns. But Symon had eventually been stripped of his robe and cast out due to his preference for wine and spirits over books and teaching.

Or so the story went.

When it came to Symon, much of his history was dubious. Graylin suspected there was far more to the man. Even deep in his cups, Symon seldom appeared drunk. Instead, there remained a glint of hard steel buried under his feigned merriment, and a sharper intent hidden behind his idle banter.

Still, the man had kept Graylin’s secret all these years, and for that, he tolerated the former alchymist. But there were limits to his largesse.

Graylin dropped his stool near the fire and sat atop it. “Explain yourself.”

Symon shifted and reached inside his heavy cloak and removed a curl of parchment sealed with wax. He offered it over, but Graylin simply folded his arms. He recognized the missive of a skrycrow and had no interest in reading what might be written there. His world was now this cabin, these woods, and his stalwart brothers. He needed nothing else, wanted nothing else.

Symon studied him for a breath, then rolled the scroll between his fingers until the red wax seal faced Graylin. “This is pressed with the mark of the Cloistery.”

Graylin’s heart clenched in his chest.

“From the Mýr,” Symon added.

“I know where the Cloistery is,” Graylin grumbled darkly. “Why does this concern me?”

Symon leaned back, fingering the scroll around and around. “The skrycrow arrived a day ago,” he said. “Sent to me—but meant for you.”

“If so, then you failed to keep your word. For anyone to know I still live, to know you could reach me, then you must have shared what you swore to keep secret.”

Symon shrugged. “Breaking an oath to an oathbreaker. Surely you can’t hold that against me.”

Graylin stood up, tightening a fist.

Symon sighed. “Calm yourself. There were a few who needed the truth and could be trusted with it.”

“Like you?”

“Like the prioress of the Cloistery.”

Graylin knew the woman and respected her. He slowly settled back to his stool.

“You are not a fool, Graylin. Nor a naïve sop. Surely you must understand that some matters overrule even a sworn word. You certainly demonstrated that amply in the past. Did not love break your oath?”

Graylin felt his face heat up, not with shame, but with rising anger. “You think you need to remind me of—”

Symon cut him off with a raised hand. “Fair trade.”

Baffled by his words, Graylin took a breath, then sputtered, “What do you mean?”

“Since I gave away your secret, in payment I will give you one of my own.”

Graylin frowned. He did not care about any of the confidences that Symon kept, but he was intrigued enough to wave to the man.

Symon planted his pipe between his lips and bent over. He used a finger to pull the worn hose from his left foot and tossed it aside. He then lifted his leg to expose his sole to Graylin. “What do you think about that?”

Graylin leaned closer and came to a firm conclusion. “You need a bath. With plenty of lyeleaf soap to strip that reek from your flesh. If that’s even possible.”

“Look closer, near my heel.”

Holding his breath, Graylin pushed forward. He squinted and spotted a small raised scar. It looked no more than what one might get from stepping on a hot coal rolled from a fire. “Are we comparing burns?” he asked.

Symon tilted his foot slightly, and the scar transformed from a knot of thickened skin to a vague outline of a rose. Graylin shifted back.

No…

Symon lowered his foot.

Graylin studied his former alchymist anew. “You’re not suggesting you’re part of—”

“The Razen Rose?” Symon lifted a brow.

He scoffed. “They’re just stories, concocted by those who see shadows where there are none.”

“You’ve heard me belch and fart. Is that not real enough?”

Throughout his years in the Legionary and beyond, he had heard rumors of the Razen Rose, a confederacy of spies aligned to no kingdom or empire. They were said to be stripped alchymists and hieromonks who had been secretly recruited to use their skills to a greater purpose: to protect and preserve knowledge throughout the rise and fall of realms. Some suspected their true agenda involved steering history, believing the Rose was the hidden hand that ultimately moved the gears of the world.

Graylin stared over at Symon.

If this man is part of that hand, the Urth is doomed.

“Does that not pay my debt?” Symon asked.

“Assuming what you say is even true.”

Symon shrugged. “A secret sold does not require a buyer’s belief. It’s a value unto itself.”

Growing exasperated, Graylin stood. “Consider your debt paid, but I want nothing to do with the greater world.”

Symon remained seated, even leaned back. “It’s not the greater world that you need care about.” He puffed hard on his pipe, then lifted the scroll over the smoldering bowl. “This missive concerns Marayn’s child.”

Graylin went cold. All the blood drained to his legs. The unquiet peace he had settled upon suddenly fractured into a thousand painful shards.

“A daughter, as I understand it.” Symon lowered the parchment toward the pipe’s fiery bowl. “But if you don’t wish to involve yourself…”

Graylin lunged and snatched the message. He clutched it as his past overwhelmed him.

 

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

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