Empire in Black and Gold (Shadows of the Apt Series #1)by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The city states of the Lowlands have lived in peace for decades, bastions of civilization, prosperity and sophistication, protected by treaties, trade and a belief in the reasonable nature of their neighbors. But meanwhile, in far-off corners, the Wasp Empire has been devouring city after city with its highly trained armies, its machines, it killing Art . . . And now… See more details below
The city states of the Lowlands have lived in peace for decades, bastions of civilization, prosperity and sophistication, protected by treaties, trade and a belief in the reasonable nature of their neighbors. But meanwhile, in far-off corners, the Wasp Empire has been devouring city after city with its highly trained armies, its machines, it killing Art . . . And now its hunger for conquest and war has become insatiable. Only the aging Stenwold Maker, spymaster, artificer and statesman, can see that the long days of peace are over. It falls upon his shoulders to open the eyes of his people, before a black-and-gold tide sweeps down over the Lowlands and burns away everything in its path. But first he must stop himself from becoming the Empire's latest victim.
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EMPIRE IN BLACK AND GOLDSHADOWS OF THE APT
By ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2010 Adrian Czajkowski
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAfter Stenwold picked up the telescope for the ninth time, Marius said, "You will know first from the sound."
The burly man stopped and peered down at him, telescope still half-poised. From their third-storey retreat the city walls were a mass of black and red, the defenders hurrying into place atop the ramparts and about the gates.
"How do you mean, the sound?"
Marius, sitting on the floor with his back to the wall, looked up at him. "What you hear now is men braving themselves for a fight. When it starts, they will be quiet, just for a moment. They will brace themselves. Then it will be a different kind of noise." It was a long speech for him.
Even from here Stenwold could hear a constant murmur from the gates. He lowered the telescope reluctantly. "There'll be a great almighty noise when they come in, if all goes according to plan."
Marius shrugged. "Then listen for that."
Below there was a quick patter of feet as someone ascended the stairs. Stenwold twitched but Marius remarked simply, "Tisamon," and went back to staring at nothing. In the room beneath them there were nine men and women dressed in the same chain hauberk and helm that Marius wore, and looking enough like him to be family. Stenwold knew their minds were meshed together, touching each other's and touching Marius too, thoughts passing freely back and forth between them. He could not imagine how it must be, for them.
Tisamon burst in, tall and pale, with thunder in his expression. Even as Stenwold opened his mouth he snapped out, "No sign. She's not come."
"Well there are always-" Stenwold started, but the tall man cut him off.
"I cannot think of any reason why she wouldn't come, except one," Tisamon spat. Seldom, so very seldom, had Stenwold seen this man angry and, whenever he had been, there was always blood. Tisamon was Mantis-kinden, whose people had, when time was young, been the most deadly killers of the Lowlands. Even though their time of greatness had passed, they were still not to be toyed with. They were matchless, whether in single duel or a skirmish of swords, and Tisamon was a master, the deadliest fighter Stenwold had ever known.
"She has betrayed us," Tisamon stated simply. Abruptly all expression was gone from his angular features but that was only because it had fled inward.
"There are ... reasons," Stenwold said, wishing to defend his absent friend and yet not turn the duellist's anger against himself. The man's cold, hating eyes locked on to him even so. Tisamon had taken up no weapon, but his hands alone, and the spurs of naked bone that lanced outward from his forearms, were quite enough to take Stenwold apart, and with time to spare. "Tisamon," Stenwold said. "You don't know ..."
"Listen," said Marius suddenly. And when Stenwold listened, in that very instant there was no more murmur audible from the gates.
And then it came, reaching them across the rooftops of Myna: the cry of a thousand throats. The assault had begun.
It was enough to shout down even Tisamon's wrath. Stenwold fumbled with the telescope, then stumbled to the window, nearly losing the instrument over the sill. When he had the glass back to his eye his hands were shaking so much that he could not keep it steady. The lens's view danced across the gatehouse and the wall, then finally settled. He saw the black and red armour of the army of Myna: men aiming crossbows or winching artillery around. He saw ballista and grapeshot-throwers wheel crazily through the arc of the telescope's eye, discharging their burdens. There was black and gold now amongst the black and red. The first wave of the Wasp divisions came upon them in a glittering mob: troops in light armour bearing the Empire's colours skimming over the tops of the walls, the air about their shoulders ashimmer with the dancing of nebulous wings. For a second Stenwold saw them as the insects they aped, but in reality they were armoured men, aloft in the air, with wings flickering from their backs and blades in their hands. They swooped on the earthbound defenders with lances and swords, loosing arrows and crossbow bolts and hurling spears. As the defenders turned their crossbows upward toward them, Stenwold saw the bright crackle as golden fire flashed from the palms of the attackers' hands, the killing Art of the Wasp-kinden.
"Any moment now," Stenwold whispered, as though the enemy, hundreds of yards away, might overhear him. From along the wall he heard a steady thump-thump-thump as Myna's huge rock-launchers hurled missile after missile into the ground troops advancing beyond the wall.
"They're at the gate." Marius was still staring into space, but Stenwold knew that one of his men was positioned on a rooftop closer to the action, watching on his behalf.
"Then it must be now," Stenwold said. "Now." He tried to focus the jittery telescope on the gates, saw them flex inward momentarily and heard the boom of the battering ram. "Now," he said again uselessly, for still nothing happened. All that time he had spent with the artificers of Myna, charging the earth in front of the gates with powder, and nothing.
"Perhaps they got it wrong," Marius suggested. Again the ram boomed against the metal-shod gates, and they groaned like a creature in pain before it.
"I was practically looking over their shoulders," Stenwold said. "It was ready to go. How could they have ... someone must have ..."
"We are betrayed," said Tisamon softly. "By Atryssa, clearly. Who else knew the plan? Or do you think the people of Myna have sold their own to the slaver's block?"
"You ... don't know ..." But Stenwold felt conviction draining from him. Atryssa, so expected but so absent, and now this ...
"Spider-kind," Tisamon spat, and then repeated, "Spider-kind," with even keener loathing. On the walls the vanguard of the Wasp army was already engaged in a hundred little skirmishes against the shields of the defenders. Tisamon bared his teeth in utter fury. "I knew! I knew you could never trust the Spider-kinden. Why did we ever let her in? Why did-Why did we trust her?" He was white knuckled, shaking, eyes staring like a madman's. The spines flexed alarmingly in his forearms, seeking blood. Stenwold stared into his face but barely heard the words. Instead he heard what Tisamon had left unsaid, and knew not fear but a terrible pity. Spider-kinden, as Tisamon said. Spider-kinden, as subtle and devious as all that implied, and still Tisamon, with a thousand years of race hatred between them, had let her into his life and opened the gates of his soul to her. It was not just that Atryssa had betrayed her friends and betrayed the people of Myna; it was that she had betrayed Tisamon, and he could not bear the hurt.
"It has been a long time," Marius said quietly. "A lot can happen that even a Spider cannot predict."
Tisamon rounded on him, livid with anger, but just then with a great scream of tortured metal, a thundercrack of splintering wood, the gates gave way.
The ramming engine was first through, no telescope needed to see its great brass and steel bulk as it blundered over the wreckage it had created, belching smoke from its funnels. A ballista atop its hood hung half off its mountings, mangled by the defenders' artillery, but there were eyelets in its metal sides from which spat crossbow bolts and the crackling energy of the Wasps' Art. Swarming either side of it were their line infantry, spear-armed but shieldless. Clad in armour too heavy to fly in, they pushed the men stationed at the gate back through sheer force, while their airborne divisions were beginning to pass over the city. The guardians of Myna were a disciplined lot, shield locked with shield as they tried to keep the enemy out. There were too many of them, though; the assault came from before and above, and from either side. Eventually the defenders' line buckled and fell back.
"We have to leave now," Stenwold said, "or we'll never get out. Someone has to know what's happened here. The Lowlands have to be warned."
"The Lowlands won't care," said Marius, but he was up and poised, and Stenwold knew that, below them, his soldiers would be ready with shield and sword and crossbow. They went down the stairs in quick succession, knowing that, now their single trick had failed, nothing would keep the Wasps out of Myna. Their army had five men for every defender the city could muster.
What a band we are. The thought passed through Stenwold's mind as he took the stairs, bringing up the rear as always. First went Marius, tan-skinned and dark, with the universally compact build of his race: he had abandoned his people to come here, gone renegade so that he could fight against the enemy his city would not believe in. After him came Tisamon, still consumed with rage and yet still the most graceful man Stenwold had ever known. His leather arming jacket bore the green and gold colours, even the ceremonial pin, of a MantisWeaponsmaster. Stenwold had never seen him without it and knew he was clinging to his grudges and his honour like a drowning man.
And then myself: dark of skin and receding of hair; stout and bulky, loud of tread. Not my fault my folk are so heavy boned! Hardwearing leathers and a scorched apron, a workman's heavy gloves thrust through my belt, and goggles dangling about my neck. Not at first sight a man ever intended for war. And yet here I am with a crossbow banging against my legs.
Down in the room below, Marius's soldiers were already alert and on their feet, Some had their heavy square shields out, swords at the ready, others had slung them and taken up crossbows. Two carried the baggage: a heavy leather bag containing Stenwold's tools, and a long wooden case. Even as Stenwold got sight of the room they were unbarring the door, throwing it open. Immediately two of them pushed out, shields first. Stenwold realized that he had paused halfway down, dreading the moment when there would no longer be a roof above him to keep off enemy shot. Tisamon and most of the soldiers were gone. Marius, however, was waiting for him, an unspoken urgency hanging in his gaze.
"I'm coming," Stenwold said, and hated the shaking of his voice. He clumped on down the stairs, fumbling for his crossbow.
"Leave it, and just move," Marius ordered, and was out of the door. Following behind Stenwold, the final pair of soldiers moved in to guard the rear.
And then they were out into the open air. The sounds of the fighting at the gate were very close, closer than he could have thought, but this street had seen no blood-not yet. There were citizens of Myna out and about, though, waiting in a scatter of anxious faces. Men and women, and boys and girls still too young to be here at all, they were clutching knives and swords and staves, and waiting.
At his unheard direction, Marius's soldiers formed up: shields before and shields behind, with Stenwold, the baggage and the crossbows in the middle. Marius was at point, already setting a rapid pace down the narrow street. His troop's dark armour, its single purpose, moved people quickly out of the way without need for words or action.
"I can't run as fast as your lot," Stenwold complained. He already felt out of step and was just waiting for the men behind to jostle or stumble over him. "Where's Tisamon, anyway?"
"Around." Marius did not look back or gesture, but then Stenwold caught a glimpse of the Mantis warrior passing through the crowd like an outrider, constantly pausing to look back toward the gate and then move on. He wore his armoured glove, with the blade jutting from between the fingers, flexing out like a sword blade one moment, folded back along his arm the next. It was an ancient tool of his kind and a laughable anachronism, save that Stenwold had witnessed what he could do with it.
"What about your man, at the gates?" Stenwold called, trying desperately to fall into step with those around him.
"Dead," was the officer's curt reply.
"Be sorry when you know the full tally," said Marius. "We're not out of it yet."
There was a ripple among the people of Myna, and not from the passage through them of this little squad of foreigners heading for the airfield. Stenwold realized what it must mean. All around now, they were brandishing their swords or workman's hammers or simple wooden clubs. It would not be quick or easy to capture this city, but the Wasps would have it in the end. Their dream of a black-and-gold world would accept no less.
Stenwold was Beetle-kinden and in the Lowlands his people were known for their industry, their artifice, even, as he liked to think, for their charity and kindly philosophy. The people of Myna were his distant cousins, being some offshoot of Beetle stock. He could spare them no charity now, however. He could spare no thought or time for anything but his own escape.
A brief shadow passed across him as the first of the Wasp vanguard soared overhead in a dart of black and gold, a shimmer of wings. Three more followed, and a dozen after that. They were heading in the same direction that Stenwold was moving.
"They're going to the airfield. They'll destroy the fliers!" he shouted in warning.
Instantly Marius and his men stepped up the pace and Stenwold wished he had not spoken. Now they were jogging along, effortlessly despite their armour, and he was running full tilt within a cage formed by their shields, feeling his gut lurch and his heart hammer. Behind him there were screams, and he made the mistake of looking back. Some of the Wasps, it seemed, were not heading for the airfield, but had stopped to rake across the assembled citizens with golden fire and javelins and crossbow bolts, circling and darting, and coming back to loose their missiles once again. This was no ordered attack, they were a frenzied mass of hatred, out solely for slaughter. Stenwold tripped even as he gaped, but the woman closest behind caught him by the arm and wrenched his bulk upright again, without breaking stride.
A moment later his rescuer herself was hit. There was a snap and crackle, and the stink of burned flesh and hot metal, and she sagged to one knee. Stenwold turned to help but nearly fell over the man reaching to drag her upright. The Wasp light airborne troops were all around them now, passing overhead, or diving at the citizens to drive them off the streets. A crossbow bolt bounded past Stenwold like a living thing.
The injured woman was on her feet once more. She and the man beside her turned to face the new assault. Marius and the rest kept moving.
"Come on, Stenwold! Hurry!" the officer shouted.
"Go," said the injured woman, no pain or reproach in her voice. She and the man with her locked shields, waiting. Stenwold stumbled away from them, then turned and fled after Marius and the others.
Tisamon was beside him in an instant. He had a look on his face that Stenwold had never seen before, but he could read it as though the Mantis's thoughts were carved there. Tisamon wanted a fight. He had been betrayed. He had been broken. Now he wanted a fight that he could not win.
"Get a move on, fat-Beetle," he hissed, grabbing one strap of Stenwold's apron and hauling him forward. "You're getting out of here."
"We are," corrected Stenwold, too out of breath by now to say any more. He watched Tisamon snatch a Wasp spear from the air in his offhand and then the Mantis spun on his heel, launched it away into the sky behind them, and was immediately in step once again. Stenwold did not pause to look, but he had no doubt that behind them some Wasp soldier would now be dropping from the sky, pierced through by his own missile.
Myna was a tiered city and they hit a set of steps then, a steep, narrow twentyfoot ascent. Stenwold tried to slow down for it but Tisamon would not let him, grabbing his arm again and pulling him upward, exerting every muscle in his lean frame.
"Keep moving," the Mantis snapped at him through gritted teeth. "Move your great big fat feet, you Beetle bastard!"
The sting of that insult got Stenwold to the top of the steps before he realized. There were more citizens up there, all trying to head in the wrong direction, directly toward the gates. Something in Tisamon's face or body language pushed them easily aside. Ahead, Stenwold could see Marius's squad taking the next set of steps at a run.
And Stenwold ran, too, as he had never run before. His toolstrip, and his sword and crossbow, all clattered and conspired to trip him up. His breath rasped as he dragged ever more of it into his lungs, yet he ran, because up beyond those steps lay the airfield. Then he would know if he could stop running or if it was already too late.
Excerpted from EMPIRE IN BLACK AND GOLD by ADRIAN TCHAIKOVSKY Copyright © 2010 by Adrian Czajkowski. Excerpted by permission.
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