Unhewn throne 01 the e.., p.1

Unhewn Throne 01 - The Emperor's Blades, page 1

 

Unhewn Throne 01 - The Emperor's Blades
 



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Unhewn Throne 01 - The Emperor's Blades


  The author and publisher have provided this e-book to you without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied so that you can enjoy reading it on your personal devices. This e-book is for your personal use only. You may not print or post this e-book, or make this e-book publicly available in any way. You may not copy, reproduce, or upload this e-book, other than to read it on one of your personal devices.

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  For my parents, who read me stories

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  I’m sure that some writers write books all by themselves, but I needed a lot of help. The following people read chapters, brainstormed names, ridiculed my bad ideas, encouraged my good ones, demanded cooler fights, lobbied for more dastardly villains, insisted on scarier monsters, complained about inaccuracies ranging from the military to the cartographical, made paintings of the Bone Mountains, and generally heckled and herded me into doing better. Writing without them would have been a bleak and lonely process: Suzanne Baker, Oliver Snider, Tom Leith, Patrick Noyes, Colin Woods, John Muckle, Leda Eizenberg, Heather Buckels, Kyle Weaver, Kenyon Weaver, Brook Detterman, Sarah Parkinson, Becca Heymann, Katherine Pattillo, Matt Holmes, John Norton, Mark Fidler, Andrika Donovan, Shelia Staveley, Skip Staveley, Kristin Nelson, Sara Megibow, Anita Mumm, Ryan Derby, Morgan Faust, Adrian Van Young, Wes Williams, Jean Klingler, Amanda Jones, Sharon Krauss, Susan Weaver, Bella Pagan, Robert Hardage, Bill Lewis.

  Special thanks to my agent, Hannah Bowman, and my editor, Marco Palmieri, for having faith in the book, a keen eye for detail, and for reintroducing me to characters and places I thought I already knew.

  Gavin Baker, an indefatigable reader and friend, has read every last word of every last draft. His critical insights have been invaluable, but even more important has been his unshakeable belief that I could write the book, that I would write the book, and that it would be good. I borrowed from his storehouse of conviction more often than he knows.

  Finally, Johanna Staveley. The Csestriim have no words for gratitude or love, but there is a phrase common in their writings: ix alza—crucial to, of absolute necessity. It captures perfectly Jo’s relationship to both this book and the author. Without her, I would be living under a rock somewhere, lonely without knowing it, baffled by an unapprehended absence, eating my own toenails, probably still rewriting the prologue.

  CONTENTS

  Title Page

  Copyright Notice

  Dedication

  Acknowledgments

  Map

  Prologue

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44

  Chapter 45

  Chapter 46

  Chapter 47

  Chapter 48

  Chapter 49

  Chapter 50

  Appendix

  About the Author

  Copyright

  PROLOGUE

  Rot. It was the rot, Tan’is reflected as he stared down into his daughter’s eyes, that had taken his child.

  Screams and imprecations, pleading and sobbing shivered the air as the long lines of prisoners filled the valley. The scent of blood and urine thickened in the noon heat. Tan’is ignored it all, focusing instead on the face of this daughter of his who knelt, clutching at his knees. Faith was a woman grown now, thirty years and a month. At a casual glance she might have passed as healthy—bright gray eyes, lean shoulders, strong limbs—but the Csestriim no longer bore healthy children, not for centuries.

  “Father,” the woman begged, tears streaming down her cheeks.

  Those tears, too—a symptom of the rot.

  There were other words for it, of course. The children, in their ignorance or innocence, called the affliction age, but in this, as in so much else, they erred. Age was not decrepitude. Tan’is himself was old, hundreds of years old, and yet his sinews remained strong, his mind nimble—if needed, he could run all day, all night, and the better part of the next day. Most of the Csestriim were older still, thousands upon thousands of years, and yet they continued to walk the earth, those who had not fallen in the long wars with the Nevariim. No; time passed, stars swung through their silent arcs, seasons gave way one to the next, and yet none of these, in and of itself, brought harm. It was not age but rot that gnawed at the children, consuming their bowels and brains, sapping strength, eroding what meager intelligence they once possessed. Rot, and then death.

  “Father,” Faith pleaded, unable to proceed past that single word.

  “Daughter,” Tan’is replied.

  “You don’t…,” she gasped, glancing over her shoulder toward the ditch, toward where the doran’se went about their work, steel flashing in the sunlight. “You can’t…”

  Tan’is cocked his head to the side. He had tried to understand this daughter of his, tried to understand all the children. Though he was no healer, as a soldier he had learned long ago to tend shattered bones and ruptured skin, to treat the festering flesh that came from a soiled wound or the racking coughs of men too long in the field. And yet this … he could no more comprehend the nature of this decay than he could cure it.

  “It has you, daughter. The rot has you.”

  He reached down and ran a finger along the creases in Faith’s forehead, sketched the delicate tracery of lines beside her eyes, lifted a slender filament of silver hair from the brown locks. Just a few decades of sun and wind had already begun to roughen her smooth olive skin. He had wondered, when she first burst from between her mother’s thighs, strong-lunged and screaming, if perhaps she might grow up unscathed. The question had intrigued him, and now it was answered.

  “It touches you gently,” he pointed out, “but its grip will grow stronger.”

  “And so you have to do this?” she exploded, jerking her head desperately toward the freshly turned earthen ditch. “This is what it comes to?”

  Tan’is shook his head. “It was not my decision. The council voted.”

  “Why? Why do you hate us?”

  “Hate?” he replied. “That is your word, child, not ours.”

  “It’s not just a word. It describes a feeling, a real thing. A truth about the world.”

  Tan’is nodded. He had heard such arguments before. Hate, courage, fear. Those who thought the rot an affliction merely of the flesh understood nothing. It corroded the mind as well, rusting the very foundations of thought and reason.

  “I grew from your seed,” Faith continued, as though
that followed logically from what came before. “You fed me when I was small!”

  “This is the way of many creatures: wolves, eagles, horses. When they are young, dependent, all must rely on their progenitors.”

  “Wolves, eagles, and horses protect their children!” she protested, weeping openly now, clawing at the backs of his legs. “I’ve seen it! They guard and tend, feed and nurture. They raise their young.” She reached a trembling, imploring hand toward her father’s face. “Why will you not raise us?”

  “Wolves,” Tan’is replied, brushing away his daughter’s hand, “raise their young to be wolves. Eagles, eagles. You—,” he continued, frowning once more, “we have raised you, but you are broken. Polluted. Compromised. You can see it for yourself,” he said, gesturing to the hunched, defeated forms that stood waiting at the rim of the pit—hundreds of them, just waiting. “Even without this, you would die on your own, and soon.”

  “But we’re people. We are your children.”

  Tan’is shook his head wearily. It was no good reasoning with one whose reason had decayed.

  “You can never be what we are,” he said quietly, drawing his knife.

  At the sight of the blade, Faith made a strangled sound deep in her throat and flinched away. Tan’is wondered if she would try to run. A few did. They never made it far. This daughter of his, however, did not run. Instead, she balled her hands into white, trembling fists, and then, with an obvious effort of will, straightened from her knees. Standing, she was able to look him directly in the eye, and though tears plastered her hair to her cheeks, she no longer wept. For once, however briefly, the disfiguring terror had left her. She looked almost whole, hale.

  “And you cannot love us for what we are?” she asked, words slow, steady for the first time. “Even polluted, even broken? Even rotten, you cannot love us?”

  “Love,” Tan’is repeated, tasting the strange syllable, revolving it on his tongue as he drove the knife in and up, past the muscle, past the ribs, into her galloping heart, “like hate—it is your word, daughter, not ours.”

  1

  The sun hung just over the peaks, a silent, furious ember drenching the granite cliffs in a bloody red, when Kaden found the shattered carcass of the goat.

  He’d been dogging the creature over the tortuous mountain trails for hours, scanning for track where the ground was soft enough, making guesses when he came to bare rock, doubling back when he guessed wrong. It was slow work and tedious, the kind of task the older monks delighted in assigning to their pupils. As the sun sank and the eastern sky purpled to a vicious bruise, he started to wonder if he would be spending the night in the high peaks with only his roughspun robe for comfort. Spring had arrived weeks earlier according to the Annurian calendar, but the monks didn’t pay any heed to the calendar and neither did the weather, which remained hard and grudging. Scraps of dirty snow lingered in the long shadows, cold seeped from the stones, and the needles of the few gnarled junipers were still more gray than green.

  “Come on, you old bastard,” he muttered, checking another track. “You don’t want to sleep out here any more than I do.”

  The mountains comprised a maze of cuts and canyons, washed-out gullies and rubble-strewn ledges. Kaden had already crossed three streams gorged with snowmelt, frothing at the hard walls that hemmed them in, and his robe was damp with spray. It would freeze when the sun dropped. How the goat had made its way past the rushing water, he had no idea.

  “If you drag me around these peaks much longer…,” he began, but the words died on his lips as he spotted his quarry at last—thirty paces distant, wedged in a narrow defile, only the hindquarters visible.

  Although he couldn’t get a good look at the thing—it seemed to have trapped itself between a large boulder and the canyon wall—he could tell at once that something was wrong. The creature was still, too still, and there was an unnaturalness to the angle of the haunches, the stiffness in the legs.

  “Come on, goat,” he murmured as he approached, hoping the animal hadn’t managed to hurt itself too badly. The Shin monks were not rich, and they relied on their flocks for milk and meat. If Kaden returned with an animal that was injured, or worse, dead, his umial would impose a severe penance.

  “Come on, old fellow,” he said, working his way slowly up the canyon. The goat appeared stuck, but if it could run, he didn’t want to end up chasing it all over the Bone Mountains. “Better grazing down below. We’ll walk back together.”

  The evening shadows hid the blood until he was nearly standing in it, the pool wide and dark and still. Something had gutted the animal, hacked a savage slice across the haunch and into the stomach, cleaving muscle and driving into the viscera. As Kaden watched, the last lingering drops of blood trickled out, turning the soft belly hair into a sodden, ropy mess, running down the stiff legs like urine.

  “’Shael take it,” he cursed, vaulting over the wedged boulder. It wasn’t so unusual for a crag cat to take a goat, but now he’d have to carry the carcass back to the monastery across his shoulders. “You had to go wandering,” he said. “You had…”

  The words trailed off, and his spine stiffened as he got a good look at the animal for the first time. A quick cold fear blazed over his skin. He took a breath, then extinguished the emotion. Shin training wasn’t good for much, but after eight years, he had managed to tame his feelings; fear, envy, anger, exuberance—he still felt them, but they did not penetrate so deeply as they once had. Even within the fortress of his calm, however, he couldn’t help but stare.

  Whatever had gutted the goat did not stop there. Some creature—Kaden struggled in vain to think of what—had hacked the animal’s head from its shoulders, severing the strong sinew and muscle with sharp, brutal strokes until only the stump of the neck remained. Crag cats would take the occasional flagging member of a herd, but not like this. These wounds were vicious, unnecessary, lacking the quotidian economy of other kills he had seen in the wild. The animal had not simply been slaughtered; it had been destroyed.

  Kaden cast about, searching for the rest of the carcass. Stones and branches had washed down with the early spring floods and lodged at the choke point of the defile in a weed-matted mess of silt and skeletal wooden fingers, sun-bleached and grasping. So much detritus clogged the canyon that it took him a while to locate the head, which lay tossed on its side a few paces distant. Much of the hair had been torn away and the bone split open. The brain was gone, scooped from the trencher of the skull as though with a spoon.

  Kaden’s first thought was to flee. Blood still dripped from the goat’s gory coat, more black than red in the fading light, and whatever had mauled it could still be in the rocks, guarding its kill. None of the local predators would be likely to attack Kaden—he was tall for his seventeen years, lean and strong from half a lifetime of labor—but then, none of the local predators would have hacked the head from the goat and eaten its brain either.

  He turned toward the canyon mouth. The sun had settled below the steppe, leaving just a burnt smudge above the grasslands to the west. Already night filled the canyon like oil seeping into a bowl. Even if he left immediately, even if he ran at his fastest lope, he’d be covering the last few miles to the monastery in full dark. Though he thought he had long outgrown his fear of night in the mountains, he didn’t relish the idea of stumbling along the rock-strewn path, an unknown predator following in the darkness.

  He took a step away from the shattered creature, then hesitated.

  “Heng’s going to want a painting of this,” he muttered, forcing himself to turn back to the carnage.

  Anyone with a brush and a scrap of parchment could make a painting, but the Shin expected rather more of their novices and acolytes. Painting was the product of seeing, and the monks had their own way of seeing. Saama’an, they called it: “the carved mind.” It was only an exercise, of course, a step on the long path leading to the ultimate liberation of vaniate, but it had its meager uses. During his eight years in the mo
untains, Kaden had learned to see, to really see the world as it was: the track of a brindled bear, the serration of a forksleaf petal, the crenellations of a distant peak. He had spent countless hours, weeks, years looking, seeing, memorizing. He could paint any of a thousand plants or animals down to the last finial feather, and he could internalize a new scene in heartbeats.

  He took two slow breaths, clearing a space in his head, a blank slate on which to carve each minute particular. The fear remained, but the fear was an impediment, and he pared it down, focusing on the task at hand. With the slate prepared, he set to work. It took only a few breaths to etch the severed head, the pools of dark blood, the mangled carcass of the animal. The lines were sure and certain, finer than any brushstroke, and unlike normal memory, the process left him with a sharp, vivid image, durable as the stones on which he stood, one he would be able to recall and scrutinize at will. He finished the saama’an and let out a long, careful breath.

  Fear is blindness, he muttered, repeating the old Shin aphorism. Calmness, sight.

  The words provided cold comfort in the face of the bloody scene, but now that he had the carving, he could leave. He glanced once over his shoulder, searching the cliffs for some sign of the predator, then turned toward the opening of the defile. As the night’s dark fog rolled over the peaks, he raced the darkness down the treacherous trails, sandaled feet darting past the downed limbs and ankle-breaking rocks. His legs, chill and stiff after so many hours creeping after the goat, warmed to the motion while his heart settled into a steady tempo.

  You’re not running away, he told himself, just heading home.

  Still, he breathed a small sigh of relief a mile down the path when he rounded a tower of rock—the Talon, the monks called it—and could make out Ashk’lan in the distance. Thousands of feet below him, the scant stone buildings perched on a narrow ledge as though huddled away from the abyss. Warm lights glowed in some of the windows. There would be a fire in the refectory kitchen, lamps kindled in the meditation hall, the quiet hum of the Shin going about their evening ablutions and rituals. Safe. The word rose unbidden to his mind. It was safe down there, and despite his resolve, Kaden increased his pace, running toward those few, faint lights, fleeing whatever prowled the unknown darkness behind him.

 
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