Read an Excerpt From The Risen City

Imperator Elgar’s dire strategy for conquering the continent has finally been laid bare, and those who would stop him must prepare to make their final stand.

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Risen City, the powerful finale of the Paths of Lantistyne trilogy by Isabelle Steiger, out from St. Martin’s Press on December 20.

Imperator Elgar’s dire strategy for conquering the continent has finally been laid bare, and those who would stop him must prepare to make their final stand. The surviving rogues of the Dragon’s Head are split in two: half help dismantle Elgar’s plot from the shadows of their home city, while the rest chase down rumors and revolts in the east. Valyanrend’s rebels and thieves have made common cause for the first time in centuries, but they form only half of the resistance necessary to challenge the imperator. For the other half, they must look to the continent’s remaining royals for a foreign army.

Unfortunately, most of Lantistyne’s royals have seen better days. King Kelken is imprisoned in Araveil, at the mercy of the brutal Administrator Selwyn. And Arianrod Margraine, the brilliant marquise of Esthrades, left her own country open to invasion when she helped save neighboring Issamira from falling into ruin. Now Issamira and Queen Adora, long neutral in this conflict, must take up the burden of war.

Adora has reclaimed her crown and found her conviction, but fights to keep her army on a just path amidst the violence she abhors. Together, she and Arianrod have already toppled one power-hungry usurper, but the two of them are separated when a reckless sacrifice puts the marquise’s life in jeopardy. And the ancient spirits of Lantistyne, whose subtle machinations helped Adora survive to gain her throne, are ready to make their will known at last.


 

The legions stretched out across the plains as far as Adora’s eyes could see, swords and shields and spears flashing a harsh glare in the sunlight. The humid air was filled with the clang of metal on metal, the stomp of countless feet, the brisk shouting of commands. The troops were arranged in orderly rows, but each legion was its own unit, performing its own drills at its own pace. Her uncle had told her this was customary, and no cause for concern. Even if it were possible, there would be no point to making such a great army act as one being; better to let the many strengths of diversity come to the fore, the better to combat all potential weaknesses.

Vespas Hahrenraith himself rode among their ranks astride his black courser, as in his element as Adora had ever seen him. He called encouragements or made corrections as necessary, and every soldier whose eyes he drew looked at him with the same reverence. He was a living legend, the hero who had fought at her father’s side against the tyrant Gerde Selte when Adora was just a child. Only Jotun Avestri himself had won more fame in those battles, and Adora had never considered choosing anyone else to lead her armies. But she wondered what those soldiers saw when they looked at her: no hero, nor even an accomplished warrior like her brothers. Though she could boast of being as well read as anyone in the country, she had read as much of war in poetry and song as she had in texts of history and strategy, and it could be difficult to separate the two.

Vespas rode up to where she sat beneath the shade of the cloth pavilion they’d assembled at the edge of the field. He dismounted in one smooth motion, tying the horse to the nearest post. “Well, Your Grace? What do you think? An impressive showing, no?”

Adora bowed her head. Since her coronation, she had worn only a light circlet for day-to-day activities, a beautiful and intricate piece of silver twined with gold. As slender as it was, it still felt strange, and she often had to resist the urge to scratch beneath it. At least it provided an anchor for pinning her wayward curls back from her face. “The might of our people on full display would humble anyone. Though I fear that, given my inexperience in military matters, what I think of them matters far less than what you do.”

He caught the implied question, taking a seat beside her. “We’re in good shape. Even years after Jotun’s death, his memory has kept his army’s ranks full; we won’t have to go recruiting, or worse, drafting. We also have your organizational skills to thank: our supplies are exactly as they should be. And then, of course, our coffers are as full as ever. Numerous, well-outfitted, and supported by their weight in gold—three very fine things for an army to be.”

“But if you had to nitpick?”

He shrugged. “Not to exalt myself too highly, but since my retirement, I doubt any of my replacements have been putting the rank and file through their paces as they ought. As this country’s blade, their edge has dulled a little. But I’ll soon sharpen it again. To be honest, what worries me most isn’t anything about the state of our army; it’s the nature of our opponent. When Jotun and I took on Gerde Selte, we were fewer, poorer, and possessed of less. But Gerde Selte could not use magic.”

Adora felt a chill at that, despite the heat of the day. Both she and her uncle  had borne witness to the terrible things magic was capable of. But he had seen a mage’s work only after the mage herself had gone, and she had fought a mage with another mage at her side. “Jocelyn Selreshe’s power was so formidable because she supplemented it with the magic she stole from Lirien,” she said, to remind herself as much as him. “Arianrod says that, absent that boon, Elgar’s power will have harsh limits.”

“Not harsh enough,” her uncle said. “All the damage I saw in her parents’ household was damage Jocelyn had inflicted before she ever met Lirien Arvel. And it was not inconsiderable.”

They both turned to look behind them at the city of Eldren Cael, where Amali Selreshe stood beside Hephestion atop the city walls, watching the legions from on high. Perhaps he had asked her something, for she was pointing at the soldiers, head bent toward him as she made some observation or explanation.

Of all those they had taken from the Selreshes’ household, Lady Amali had shown the most rapid improvement. She still flinched every time she saw a bow, but she was capable of long and complex conversations without any of the confusion or anguish that had plagued her when she first arrived. Adora had often seen her and Hephestion like this, seated in some shady spot and talking. Perhaps they leaned on each other because they had both been victims of Jocelyn’s mind-altering magic, because Amali showed him how far he hadn’t fallen and he showed her how high she could still rise. No matter the reason, Adora was grateful for her presence at his side, and for the even more pronounced improvement he had shown since. The fear and unease he’d felt in Adora’s company at first had all evaporated by now, and he was almost like the brother she remembered, save for a touch more solemnity in his once-unerringly cheerful manner.

“Jocelyn had years to move unchecked within her own household,” Adora said to Vespas.

“And Elgar has had years to move unchecked within most of this continent.”

“An advantage I will be sure never to forget. But not an insurmountable one—you must not think so either, or you wouldn’t be here at my side.”

“You underestimate my affection for a lost cause.” His smile flashed by so quickly that she couldn’t tell whether he meant it as a joke or not. “I only wish that, when we march for Valyanrend, Arianrod Margraine would be at our side.”

His words sank to the pit of Adora’s stomach, weighing on her like lead. For days upon days, she had tried everything she could think of to change Arianrod’s mind. She knew she was in the right—a rare thing when they argued—but for once it seemed to make no difference. Even though she knew as well as anyone how stubborn Arianrod could be, Adora still felt like she was failing the person who had already sacrificed so much to help her.

Watching her face, her uncle grew solemn. “I did not mean to trouble you so. A second queen would be useful, a mage even more so, but we can win without her.”

If only that were the only issue at stake. “I’m not troubled because she is a queen, or even because she’s useful,” Adora said. “It’s because she is my friend, and I fear that, if I let her leave, I will never see her again.”

“Ah.” His gaze was drawn upward, to where Amali Selreshe sat. “That’s harder, then.”

 

Though Arianrod was leaving on the morrow, Adora did not truly have a moment to spare for her until the afternoon. Arianrod had been spending all of her spare moments in the palace library, trying to make her way through as many books she hadn’t read as possible. Adora wasn’t surprised to find Seren Almasy standing in front of the heavy doors that marked the library entrance, every line of her body poised and alert, though Adora did not know what danger she thought lurked in these halls.

She hadn’t known what to make of her at first, but now she liked Seren. Many people were awed by Arianrod’s skills, but precious few genuinely liked her; to have one of them so close to her could only do her good. “How’s it going in there?” she asked.

“Last I checked, there were seven books she wanted to have at least cursory knowledge of by the end of the day. I offered to help, but she said I couldn’t read fast enough and wouldn’t know what to look for.”

Adora smiled. “I bet she also said you should come in and sit down, but you insisted on guarding this door.”

Seren frowned, tense. “How did you know that?”

“It’s… really not that difficult. I know her, and I’m at least starting to know you. You’re overprotective—which I suppose is appropriate in a bodyguard—but you’re also shy. You’d feel presumptuous to enjoy her company just for the sake of it, absent anything you could find to do for her.”

Seren’s lips pressed together, her jaw tightening and relaxing. “You see so far into people, Your Grace. It’s… intimidating.”

“Why?” Adora asked. “Don’t people want to be seen as they truly are? I should hate to be misunderstood by anyone.”

Seren pondered that question for some time. “When you are used to being misunderstood,” she finally said, “to be suddenly perceived can feel like… a layer of armor has been taken away.”

“Well, I hope one day you will not feel the need to arm yourself around me. Though I understand that is not a small thing to ask.” She let her gaze drift to the closed doors. “I know our library better than anyone. Perhaps I can help.”

“Can you not…” She stopped, and visibly swallowed her words. “Never mind.”

“No, what is it?”

Seren bent her head. “She keeps telling me not to go with her when she leaves. I would never allow that, but if it is such a persistent wish of hers—”

“—then she must think you would be in great danger if you went,” Adora said. “Which means she thinks she will be, with or without you.”

Seren nodded. “The thing I fear most—” She swallowed hard again. “For most people, pain is a deterrent. You push yourself past your limits, and you learn to be more careful next time. But every time she takes her magic past its limits—every time she goes to the edge and survives—it only encourages her to push for more. It takes her longer and longer to recover, but that hasn’t deterred her at all. I fear that, if she continues in this way… that the magic she so loves may one day take everything from her.”

A chilling thought, and one Adora could imagine coming to pass all too well. Arianrod was certainly stubborn, and, despite her formidable intellect, possessed of a courage so great it sometimes tipped over into recklessness. She seemed to hate limitations by her very nature, to be unable to resist pushing on them to see if they were truly there. But mortality was a fact, not something to be outwitted—not even by her.

“I confess I would prefer it if neither of you left,” she told Seren. “But if she is determined to do so, you and I both know the impossibility of stopping her.” She put a hand against the doors. “Are you coming in?”

Seren stared at the floor. “I’ll… wait out here.”

“Suit yourself.”

The stack of books Seren had mentioned was the first thing Adora noticed, carefully balanced on a table in the center of the library. Arianrod had another in front of her face, pacing back and forth as she flipped pages. The pallor of her skin suggested she had not eaten or slept as much as Seren or Adora would have liked.

“Did you stack them in order of priority?” Adora asked.

Arianrod barely glanced up. “Mm. Help yourself, if you’re so inclined.”

Adora reached for the topmost book, Wardren Principe, and found it to be an Old Lantian tome on the properties of spells. “Are you looking for anything in particular?”

“Anything that might help me understand why mages died out of our population, and why they have returned. Nothing in Stonespire’s library ever helped me, and though my time at Mist’s Edge was limited, nothing drew my eye there, either. But your library is far older.”

“The Ninists controlled this place for centuries, though,” Adora said. “They may have weeded out some things they found too dangerous.”

“True, but there’s no harm in trying, is there?” She set the book she was reading down and reached for the next one in the stack, a leather-bound journal. “This one is useless—written too early. Magic was still thriving when its writer died, it seems.”

Then perhaps the one Adora held would prove useless as well, though she still wanted to make sure. “What’s that one?”

“This?” She waved the journal in one hand. “It seems there used to be such things as magic instructors. This one kept a diary of his students’ achievements.”

“A pity I never much cared for books on magic before,” Adora said. “I was so sure it was just this relic of the past, never to return as we once knew it. I didn’t want to make myself sad, filling my head with thoughts of what could never be.”

“One of your few scholarly oversights.” A smile flitted across Arianrod’s face for a moment, before she became absorbed in her reading again. “When I was a child, I thought the people around me loved nothing more than to tell me things were impossible. And over and over I learned just how wrong they were. More often than not, you can’t just means I couldn’t—or I don’t want you to.” She flipped a few more pages in the journal while Adora gave up on her own find and reached for the next, this one written in modern Lantian. “Hmm. This might be something.”

“What is it?”

“Near the end of a day of practice, one of his students, who’d been fine all day, suddenly had difficulty casting her spells. It’s not much, but it is the first reference to that kind of difficulty I’ve ever found.”

“But your difficulty is consistent, isn’t it?” Adora asked. “The same spell will always take the same toll on you, right?”

“That’s right, but… let me just see where this leads.” Her nose was nearly touching the page.

Adora left her to it, and turned her attention to her own book. It soon became clear that it had been written at the height of the Elesthenian Empire, when magic was already gone, but the author had provided no clues as to the reason for its loss, just a history of its qualities and function. She put it down and took up the next—it was also called Wardren Principe, but it turned out to be a completely different book. It wasn’t as if every writer could know the provenance of every title, she supposed.

It also took much more effort to read. About a quarter of the terms had been written in the runic alphabet, an archaic way of writing in Old Lantian in which characters were given conceptual, rather than phonetic, meanings. One rune could have multiple pronunciations, depending on the context, so though Adora was fluent in Old Lantian, it still took her time to translate.

She only looked up when Arianrod stabbed a finger into the journal, unaware of how much time had passed. “I’m sure there’s something here. I keep feeling I’m a moment away from understanding it. This instructor recounts similar instances of his students having difficulty with their spells—always toward the end of the day’s lessons, but never the same group of students. But he’s as puzzled by it as I am. Magic has never relied on the position of the sun and stars, never waxed and waned with the moon. Why should the time of day matter?”

“I wish I could help you,” Adora said. “But if you don’t know the answer, I don’t think my paltry knowledge of magic is going to provide any additional insight. I learned most of what I know from you, after all.” She turned the page of her own book, and frowned down at a collection of three runes left alone on a single line. “Well, that’s new.”

“What is?”

“I’ve never seen this arrangement in runic before.” She held the book out so Arianrod could see. “Whoever wrote this probably created it themselves.”

“Lucky. It’s rare to find a truly original runic configuration. I’m going to guess these two were chosen for essence and turn against, which would make this one… steady? Enduring?

“Yes, that sounds right.” Adora squinted at the sequence. “So it’s a word for something that perpetually turns against itself. The closest modern equivalent would be… impurity? Corruption?

Arianrod smirked. “Bit judgmental of you, no? What about contradiction?”

“That might work as well,” Adora admitted. “Let me see if more context narrows it down a little.” She skimmed the next few paragraphs. “It’s about the ability of magic to negate or dispel other magic. I suppose that is a sort of contradiction— you can’t dry something off by adding more water, but you can remove magic with magic.”

“Yes, you saw me do that to Jocelyn’s magic,” Arianrod pointed out. “It’s why the best weapon against a mage is often another mage.”

“But that point does seem a bit obvious, so I wonder why…” She kept reading, and frowned. “Arianrod, listen to this. ‘We have observed a further, somewhat disconcerting phenomenon: when two wards of great power, but opposed in intent, come to be in the same place at the same time, sometimes they do not merely dispel one another. When the two are of a sufficiently strong and virulent will, they may, upon dispelling and being dispelled in turn, still seek to work that will upon the things of this world. In such situations, in danger of losing the power that allows them to be, the wards will reach out into the living world. We have yet to find a type of matter they will not touch: stone, steel, wood, earth—all corruptible. We are not so foolish as to test it, but we believe even human flesh would not be impervious to such an assault, were the spell feeding it of sufficient strength.’”

As Adora’s voice died away, they were both silent for several moments. Arianrod spoke up first. “So it’s a type of spell that doesn’t just negate another spell, but… eats away at the world somehow, changes the physical quality of objects. I wonder if that might have anything to do with whatever process creates vardrath steel?”

“I had a different thought,” Adora said quietly. “It reminded me of the Curse.”

Arianrod breathed in sharply through her nose, her eyes widening. “Damn, you’re right. The Curse is certainly a landscape like none other on earth, and now we know it absorbs magic. Could the very soil have been altered by that method?” She frowned. “But the Curse is huge. If the results of one mage’s power colliding with another’s were truly so dramatic and far-reaching, I imagine most mages would fear to cast a spell at all.”

Adora had gone back to the book. “You’re right. From what’s written here, it seems like the scale is much smaller. Square inches, not square miles. It’s not enough to fully explain how the Curse was created, or why it’s shrinking now.”

Arianrod twirled a lock of hair around her finger. “I wonder if I could find a way to imitate that spell somehow, only with a more controlled effect. If this corruption just latches onto whatever material is closest, that’s no good. But if it could be directed…”

Adora handed her the book. “You should be the one to finish reading this, then. I wouldn’t want anything to become lost in my summary.”

They paused there, each with one hand on the book. Arianrod seemed to guess that Adora wasn’t finished, and, faced with that expectant look, she couldn’t keep the words inside anymore.

“I wish you wouldn’t go,” she said, and hated how plaintive she sounded saying it. But any attempt at command would be empty: a queen could not compel another queen, and if Arianrod was truly set on returning to Esthrades, it would not be right for Adora to attempt to keep her here. “You must know you’ll be safest with our armies, and I would welcome your advice even more once the war begins. Uncle is talented, of course, but I lack his skill—or at least, I lack it in matters of warfare. But you’ve been having skirmishes with Elgar’s men for years. And that’s not to mention any magical—”

“There are many things we might have accomplished together, had things unfolded differently,” Arianrod said. “I had been expecting to accompany you as well, and it is unfortunate that I cannot. I’m aware it will make things much harder on you, but…” It was not like her to hesitate. She raked a hand through her hair. “This is still the decision that I want to make. That I think is best.”

“Best for whom?” Adora asked, though she suspected she already knew the answer. “It’s certainly not the best choice for you. If this Varalen Oswhent is as smart as you say, he’ll drop everything to catch you the second you step foot in Esthrades. I can send some guardsmen to accompany you, but I can’t send an army. If I could—”

“You shouldn’t,” Arianrod said. “The way to defeat Elgar is to force him to split his armies. It would ruin everything if we fell for the same trick.”

“So the best thing for us to do is strike at Valyanrend with everything we have! I know that! Why does it seem like you don’t know it?” Adora shook her head. “You’re so clever, Arianrod, and so strong. But you can’t take back Esthrades with only your magic, Seren, and the handful of soldiers I can spare you. That is too much, even for you.”

“I know.” The frank admission made something in Adora’s chest tighten. “You must be the one to liberate Esthrades, after you have Valyanrend in hand. But Stonespire will not be able to hold out until then. It was not built to withstand a lengthy siege, and, as ever, we have no standing army. The militia alone will not be able to drive off the invaders. Any day now, news will come that the city has surrendered.”

“They may not surrender,” Adora insisted.

“They will surrender,” Arianrod said, “because I instructed Gravis to do so, at whenever he judged would be the most opportune moment, in the last reply I was able to send him. Why should my people starve in a siege? Why should they be butchered and their homes razed when the Hallerns overcome Stonespire’s walls and sack the city in revenge for their defiance? It accomplishes nothing. Elgar simply wants the city; if he thinks it has come to him willingly, he will not harm it.”

“He wants the city,” Adora said quietly, “and you.”

“Yes. That’s the problem. Elgar and his creatures know I am here, and they know they will never be able to reach me as long as I remain at your side. It will only be a matter of time before they use my country as a hostage.”

Much as she wanted to deny it, Adora knew it was inevitable. Elgar would be a fool not to drive whatever wedge he could between the two queens fighting against him. “Tell me you are not thinking of surrendering to the Hallern army.”

“Adora, can you truly picture me doing such a thing?” Arianrod smiled wryly. “That would be a very poor negotiation on my part.”

“Then what are you going to do? If you aren’t returning to take Esthrades back and you aren’t returning to surrender, then—”

“We need to maintain chaos in the east,” Arianrod said. “Now that Kelken and the Markham brothers have been captured, there is the risk that Lanvaldis will settle down, and Elgar will be able to pull his troops away from it. We cannot let that happen. But you said it yourself, Adora: the moment I step foot in Esthrades, Elgar’s men will drop everything to pursue me. I don’t intend to let them catch me, but I do intend to let them chase me. It will keep the fate of the east uncertain, and buy you the time you need to do what you must.”

“Arianrod, you can’t outrun an army. You won’t buy any time if you’re caught immediately.”

“I couldn’t outrun an army in this country, with plains as far as the eye can see. But I can certainly hide in a great forest that I know well and my enemy doesn’t know at all. Not forever, but… perhaps for long enough.”

It wouldn’t be long enough. Adora was sure of that. And even then, it was nothing like the plans Arianrod usually constructed, complex and elegant and considered from all angles. “Whatever you might accomplish in the east, you could do so much more with me and Uncle and our armies. You’ve never had access to so many men and resources before, and think of what you were able to do with just a small fraction of that!” She bit her lip. “I know it’s easy for me to say that you are more important than Esthrades, and of course I don’t mean you should stop considering it entirely. But we may have reached the point in this crisis at which we simply have no better options.”

“A genius would always have options,” Arianrod said, as if she were quoting one of the old masters. “If you truly were one, you would know that.”

“Who said that?” Adora asked.

Arianrod tilted her head, brows drawing together. “You did, of course. Have you forgotten?”

“Completely,” Adora admitted. “When was this?”

“Close to fifteen years ago. You had only been to Stonespire a handful of times, but your father had already stopped bringing Hephestion with you.”

“Because you terrorized him.”

“Because he was a loud and overconfident idiot who was always trying to lecture me on things he knew nothing about. But you really did know a lot, and you weren’t too shy to argue with me, even though you were shy about almost everything else. And that’s when you said that to me, when we were arguing about some military strategy I thought was so clever at the time, to get out of an impossible situation. You said any fool could save their own skin by sacrificing two-thirds of their army, and it’d have to be a much more elegant solution to be worth bragging about.”

Adora felt herself blush. “Well, I was a child then.”

“You were, but you were also right. If I hide behind your armies while Stonespire gets dismantled piece by piece, and say I had no choice… that simply isn’t good enough. You told me not so long ago, Adora, that no matter how much you detest war, you could never stand to be the Avestri who allowed your people to be conquered by northerners again, after all your ancestor did to break them free. Well, I know as much history as you do, and though Issamira is far older than Esthrades, House Margraine governed it for hundreds of years before Talia Avestri was ever born. In the entirety of its existence, Stonespire has never been sacked. Do you think I could stand to be the Margraine who allowed such a thing to happen?”

So that was it. This plan of hers was so flimsy because it was not truly a plan at all. It did not come from her mind, which ever analyzed situations and solved problems with a true genius’s skill, but from her heart. And Arianrod, who knew so much about every subject under the sun, knew so little about her own heart that if Adora tried to explain it to her, she would deny it with genuine confusion.

You could argue with the head, but not the heart. Adora felt despair close its jaws around hers, driven by fear and concern that had nowhere to go.

“What is it?” Arianrod asked. “You look so unwell.”

“If you get captured,” Adora said, “you’ll die. They’ll kill you.”

“Well, not right away; I’ve been such a thorn in Elgar’s side for so long that I expect he’ll want to make a show of it. But yes, eventually, they will kill me.”

“Don’t smile about it!” Arianrod could smile about almost everything, but this was too much. “Do you really want to die from your own arrogance?”

Arianrod tapped her chin. “Why do you count it such a tragedy that I should die arrogant? I certainly hope that I shall not die humble.”

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it.” But how could she explain affection, friendship, sentimentality to one who had such difficulty understanding those things? “I am unwell because I cannot convince you not to go, and I will not make you stay. And I fear that means this is one of the last times I will ever see you. If that’s true, the knowledge that we shall never have cause to play another game of sesquigon, to argue questions of politics or history or translation, to try to bring this continent into a brighter future together… I will regret it more than I could ever say, or ever explain.”

At least even Arianrod could not smile at that. She stood silent, marble-still. “I am not so convinced of my death as you,” she finally said. “But know that, if it does come to pass, I shall regret the same.”

 

Excerpted from The Risen City, copyright © 2022 by Isabelle Steiger.

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