Dragonfly Falling (Shadows of the Apt Series #2)by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Two young companions, Totho and Salma, arrive at Tark to spy on the menacing Wasp army, but are there mistakenly apprehended as enemy agents. By the time they are freed, the city is already under siege. Over in the imperial capital the young emperor, Alvdan, is becoming captivated by a remarkable slave, the vampiric Uctebri, who claims he knows of magic that can grant… See more details below
Two young companions, Totho and Salma, arrive at Tark to spy on the menacing Wasp army, but are there mistakenly apprehended as enemy agents. By the time they are freed, the city is already under siege. Over in the imperial capital the young emperor, Alvdan, is becoming captivated by a remarkable slave, the vampiric Uctebri, who claims he knows of magic that can grant eternal life. In Collegium, meanwhile, Stenwold is still trying to persuade the city magnates to take seriously the Wasp Empire's imminent threat to their survival. In a colorful drama involving mass warfare and personal combat, a small group of heroes must stand up against what seems like an unstoppable force. This volume continues the story that so brilliantly unfolded in Empire in Black and Gold - and the action is still non-stop.
Read an Excerpt
By ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2010 Adrian Czajkowski
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe morning was joyless for him, as mornings always were. He arose from silks and bee fur and felt on his skin the insidious cold that these rooms only shook off for a scant month or two in the heart of summer.
He wondered whether he could be accommodated somewhere else-as he had wondered countless times before-and knew that it would not do. It would be, in some unspecified way, disloyal. He was a prisoner of his own public image. Besides, these rooms had some advantages. No windows, for one. The sun came in through shafts set into the ceiling, three dozen of them and each too small for even the most limber Fly-kinden assassin to sneak through. He had been told that the effect of this fragmented light was beautiful, although he saw beauty in few things, and none at all in architecture.
His people had been building these ziggurats as symbols of their leaders' power since forever, but the style of building that had reached its apex here in the great palace at Capitas had overreached itself. The northern hill tribes, left behind by the sword of progress, still had their stepped pyramids atop the mounds of their hill forts. The design had changed little, only the scale, so that he, who ought to expect all things as he wanted, was entombed in a grotesque, overgrown edifice which never truly warmed at its core.
He slung on a gown, trimmed with the fur of three hundred moths. There were guards stationed outside his door, he knew, and they were for his own protection, but he felt sometimes that they were really his jailers, and that the servants now entering were merely here to torment him. He could have them killed at a word, of course, and he needed to give no reason for it, but he had tried to amuse himself in such capricious ways before and found no real joy in it. What was the point in having the wretches killed, when there were always yet more, an inexhaustible legion of them, world without end? What a depressing prospect: that a man could wade neck-deep in the blood of his servants, and there would still be men and women ready to enter his service more numerous than the motes of dust dancing in the shafts of sunlight from above.
His father had taken no joy in the rank and power that was his. His father had run through life, never taking time to stop, to look, to think. He had been born with a sword in his hand, if you believed the stories, and with destiny like an invisible crown about his brow. The man in the fur-lined gown knew what that felt like. It felt like a vice around the forehead forbidding him rest or peace.
His father had died eight years ago. No assassin's blade, no poison, no battle wound or lancing arrow. He had just fallen ill, all of a sudden, and a tenday later he just stopped, like a clock, and neither doctor nor artificer could wind him up again. His father had died, and in the tenday before, and the tenday after, all of his father's children bar two, all of this man's siblings bar one, had died also. They had died by public execution or covert murder, for good reason or for no reason other than that the succession, his succession, must be undisputed. He was the eldest son, but he knew that the right of primogeniture ran thin where lordly ambitions were concerned. He had spared one sister only, the youngest. She had been eight years old then, and something had failed in him when they presented him with the death warrant to sign. She was sixteen now, and she looked at him always with the carefully bland adoration of a subject, but he feared the thoughts that swam behind that gaze, feared them enough to wake, sweat-sodden, when even dreaming of them.
And the order lay before him still, to have her removed, the one other remaining member of his bloodline. As soon as he had a true-blood son of his own it would be done. He would take no pleasure in it, no more than he would take in the fathering. He understood his own father's life now, whose shadow he raced to outreach. Yet how envied he was! How his generals and courtiers and advisers cursed their luck, that he should sit where he did, and not they. Yet they could not know that, from the seat of a throne, the whole weighty ziggurat of state was turned on its point, and the entire hegemony's weight from the broad base of the numberless slaves, through the subject peoples and all the ranks of the army to the generals, was balanced solely upon him. He represented their hope and their inspiration, and their expectations were loaded upon him.
The servants who washed and dressed him were all of the true race. At the heart of a culture built on slavery there were few outlander slaves permitted in the palace, for who among them could be trusted? Besides, even the most menial tasks were counted an honour when performed for him. Of foreign slaves, there were only a handful of advisers, sages, artificers and others whose skills recommended them beyond the lowly stain of their blood, and though they were slaves they lived like princes while they were still of use to him.
His advisers, yes. He was to speak with his advisers later. Before that there were matters of state to attend to. Always the chains of office dragged him down.
Robed now as befitted his station, his brow bound with gold and ebony, His Imperial Majesty Alvdan the Second, lord of the Wasp Empire, prepared to reascend his throne.
* * *
The Emperor kept many advisers and every tenday he met with them all, a chance for them to speak on whatever subject they felt would best serve himself and his Empire. It was his father's custom too, a part of that clamorous, ever-running life of his that had taken him early to his grave as the Empire's greatest slave and not its master. This generation's Alvdan would gladly have done without it, but it was as much a part of the Emperor as were the throne and the crown and he could not cut it from him.
The individual advisers were another matter. Each tenday the faces might be different, some removed by his own orders, others by his loyal men of the Rekef. Some of his advisers were Rekef themselves, but he was pleased to note that this was no shield against either his displeasure or that of his subordinates.
Some of the advisers were slaves, another long tradition, for the Empire always made the best use of its resources. Scholarly men from conquered cities were often dragged to Capitas simply for the contents of their minds. Some prospered, as much as any slave could in this Empire, and better than many free men did. Others failed and fell. There were always more.
His council, thus gathered, would be the usual tedious mix. There would be one or two Woodlouse-kinden with their long and mournful grey faces, professing wisdom and counselling caution; there would be several Beetles, merchants or artificers; perhaps some oddity, like a Spider-kinden from the far south, a blank-eyed Moth or similar; and the locals, of course: Wasp-kinden from the Rekef, from the army, diplomats, Consortium factors, members of high-placed families and even maverick adventurers. And they would all have counsel to offer, and it would serve them more often than not if he followed it.
His progress into the room was measured in servants who opened the doors for him, swept the floor before his feet, removed his outer robe and the weight of the crown. Others were serving him wine and sweetmeats even as he sat down, food and drink foretasted by yet more invisible underlings.
His advisers sat on either side of him in a shallow crescent of lower seats. The idea was that the Emperor should look straight ahead, and only hear the words of wisdom that tinkled in his ears, without being in any way swayed by the identity of the speaker. Ideologically brilliant, of course, though practically useless, since he had an ear keen enough to identify any of the speakers from a single uttered word. Instead, all they gained for themselves were stiff necks as everyone craned around to look at whoever spoke.
I could change this. He was, after all, the Emperor. He could have them sitting around a table like off-duty soldiers on a gambling spree, or kneeling before him like supplicants, or hanging on wires from the ceiling if he so wanted. Not a day went by without some petty detail of the imperial bureaucracy throwing thorns beneath his feet, yet he always found a reason not to thrust his hand into the works of the machine: it would be bad for morale; it had worked thus far; it was for a good reason, or why would they do it like that?
And in his worst dreams he heard the true reason for his own reticence, for at each change he implemented, each branch he hacked from the tradition-tree, they would all doubtless murmur, He's not the man his father was.
He had sired a legion of short-lived bastards and no true-blood sons, and perhaps that was why: the burden of the imperial inheritance that he did not want to pass to any child of his. Still, that problematic situation was looming closer each year. The imperial succession was a matter he had forbidden his advisers to speak on, but he felt the weight of it on him nonetheless.
The assembled advisers shuffled in their seats, waiting for his gesture to begin, and he gave it, listening without interest as the first few inconsequential-seeming matters were brought before him. A famine in the East-Empire, so perhaps some artificers should be sent to teach the ignorant savages something approaching modern agriculture. A lazy gesture signalled his assent. A proposal for games to celebrate the first victory over the Lowlands, whenever it happened. He ruled against that, judging it too soon. Another proposal, this from the sad-faced Woodlouse-kinden Gjegevey, who had a sufficient balance of wisdom and acumen to have served Alvdan's father for the last nine years of his reign and yet survived the purges that had accompanied the coronation.
"It might be possible to proceed more gently in our invasion plans," the soft-voiced old man said. He was a freakish specimen, as all his people were: a whole head taller than any reasonable man, and with his grey skin marked by pale bands up over his brow and down his back. His eyes were lost in a nest of wrinkles. "These Lowlanders have much knowledge of, mmn, mechanics, philosophy, mm, logistics ... that we might benefit from. A, hrm, gentle hand ..."
Alvdan sat back and let the debate run, hearing the military argue about the risk inherent in relying on a slow conquest, while the Rekef insisted that foreigners could not be trusted and the Consortium pressed for a swift assault that would see their Lowland trading rivals crushed. All self-interest, of course, but not necessarily bad for the Empire. He held up a hand and they fell silent.
"We have faith in our generals," was all he said, and that was that.
Before speaking, the next speaker paused long enough that Alvdan had a chance to steel himself for the words to come.
"Your Imperial Majesty." General Maxin, whose frown could set the entire Rekef trembling, began carefully. "There remains the matter of your sister."
"Does there?" Alvdan stared straight ahead with a tight-lipped smile that he knew must chill them all.
"There are those who would-"
"We know, General. Our dear sister has a faction, a party, but she has it whether she wishes it or not. They would put her on this seat of mine because they think she would love them for it. So she must be put to death like all the others. Are you going to counsel us now about the place of mercy in imperial doctrine, or lack of it?"
He heard nothing, but in the corner of his eye caught a motion that was Maxin shaking his head.
"Do you remember General Scarad?" the Emperor continued. "I believe he was the last man to counsel us about mercy. An unwise trait in a ruler of men, he claimed."
"Yes, Your Imperial Majesty."
"Remind us of our response, General."
"You agreed with him, praised him for his philosophy and then had him put to death, Your Majesty," replied General Maxin levelly.
"We praise you for your memory, General, so pray continue."
"An alternative disposition of your sister has been suggested to me, Your Imperial Majesty," Maxin said, picking his way carefully. "She cannot be married, obviously, and she is not fit for office, so perhaps she should find some peace of mind in some secular body. Some philosophical order, Majesty, with no political aspirations."
Alvdan closed his eyes, trying to picture his sister in the robes of the Mercy's Daughters or some such pack of hags. "Your suggestion is noted, General, and we will consider it," was all he would say, but it appealed to his sense of humour. Yes, a nice peaceful life of contemplation. How better to drive his little sister out of her mind?
When he was done, and his advisers had no more advice to give, the servants repeated their rigmarole, but this time in reverse. Once he had stood up, his advisers began to sidle out of the room, leaving only General Maxin, who seemed to be taking an unaccountably long time to adjust his swordbelt.
"General, we sense by your subtlety that you wish to speak to us."
"Some small diversion, Your Imperial Majesty, if you wish it."
"The Rekef are becoming entertainers now, are they, General?"
"There is a man, Majesty, who has fallen into the hands of my agents. He is a most remarkable and unusual man and I thought that Your Majesty might welcome the chance to meet this individual. He is a slave, of course, and worse than just a slave, not fit to serve any useful purpose. In private he is full of strange words, though. Your Imperial Majesty's education might never have another chance such as this."
Alvdan at last looked at Maxin directly, seeing a slight smile on the stocky old soldier's face. Maxin had not advised his father, the late Emperor, but he had been wielding a knife on the night after Alvdan's coronation, making sure that the next morning would be free from sibling dissent or disunity. He was not one for jokes.
"Well, General, we are intrigued. Take us to this man."
The flight had been like something out of a fever dream, nightmarish, and unheard-of.
Thalric had come to Asta expecting to be punished. He had anticipated encountering the grim face of Colonel Latvoc or even the pinched features of General Reiner, his superiors within the Rekef, because he had failed the Empire. There had been a mission to seize the rail automotive that the city of Helleron had called the Pride, which was then to have provided the spearhead of an invasion to sack Collegium and have any dreams of Lowlands unity die stillborn. Instead, motley renegades under the command of Stenwold Maker had destroyed the Pride and even managed somehow to cast suspicion of that destruction on the Waspkinden who had so stalwartly tried to save it.
A small setback for the Empire, which must take by force, now, what might have been won by stealth. A great setback indeed for Captain Thalric of the Imperial Army, otherwise Major Thalric of the Rekef Outlander.
And yet there had been no court martial for him to face in the staging town of Asta. It seemed that the race for the Lowlands was now on, and even a flawed blade like Thalric could be put to good use. There had been sealed orders already awaiting him: Board the Cloudfarer. Further instructions to follow.
And the Cloudfarer itself: it was a piece of madness, and no Wasp artificer had made her. Some maverick Auxillian technologist had come up with that design and inflicted it upon him.
It had no hull, or at least very little of one. Instead there was a reinforced wooden base, and a scaffold of struts that composed a kind of empty cage. There was a clockwork engine aft, which two men wound by pedalling furiously, and somewhat stubby wings that bore twin propellers. Thalric had boarded along with a pilot-engineer and Lieutenant te Berro, Fly-kinden agent of the Rekef, who was to brief him. Then the Cloudfarer had lifted off, a fragile lattice of wood shuddering up and up through the air under the impelling force of her propellers. Up and up, rising in as tight a spiral as her pilot could drag her into, until they were sailing across the clouds indeed, and higher. Then the pilot let go the struts to either side, and the Cloudfarer's vast grey wings fell open left and right, above and below, and caught the wind. The vessel that had seemed some apprentice's mistake was abruptly speeding over the world beneath it, soaring on swift winds westward until they were casting across the Lowlands as high, it almost seemed, as the stars themselves sailed.
Excerpted from DRAGONFLY FALLING by ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY Copyright © 2010 by Adrian Czajkowski. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >