The Providence of Fire
Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, Book II
By Brian Staveley
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2014 Brian Staveley
All rights reserved.
Kaden hui'Malkeenian did his best to ignore both the cold granite beneath him and the hot sun beating down on his back as he slid forward, trying to get a better view of the scattered stone buildings below. A brisk wind, soaked with the cold of the lingering snows, scratched at his skin. He took a breath, drawing the heat from his core into his limbs, stilling the trembling before it could begin. His years of training with the monks were good for that much, at least. That much, and precious little else.
Valyn shifted at his side, glancing back the way they had come, then forward once more.
"Is this the path you took when you fled?" he asked.
Kaden shook his head. "We went that way," he replied, pointing north toward a great stone spire silhouetted against the sky, "beneath the Talon, then east past Buri's Leap and the Black and Gold Knives. It was night, and those trails are brutally steep. We hoped that soldiers in full armor wouldn't be able to keep up with us."
"I'm surprised they were."
"So was I," Kaden said.
He levered himself up on his elbows to peer over the spine of rock, but Valyn dragged him back.
"Keep your head down, Your Radiance," he growled.
Your Radiance. The title still sounded wrong, unstable and treacherous, like spring ice on a mountain tarn, the whole surface groaning even as it glittered, ready to crack beneath the weight of the first unwary foot. It was hard enough when others used the title, but from Valyn the words were almost unbearable. Though they'd spent half their lives apart, though both were now men in their own right, almost strangers, with their own secrets and scars, Valyn was still his brother, still his blood, and all the training, all the years, couldn't quite efface the reckless boy Kaden remembered from his childhood, the partner with whom he'd played blades and bandits, racing through the hallways and pavilions of the Dawn Palace. Hearing Valyn use the official title was like hearing his own past erased, his childhood destroyed, replaced utterly by the brutal fact of the present.
The monks, of course, would have approved. The past is a dream, they used to say. The future is a dream. There is only now. Which meant those same monks, the men who had raised him, trained him, were not men at all, not anymore. They were rotting meat, corpses strewn on the ledges below.
Valyn jerked a thumb over the rocks that shielded them, jarring Kaden from his thoughts. "We're still a good way off, but some of the bastards who killed your friends might have long lenses."
Kaden frowned, drawing his focus back to the present. He had never even considered the possibility of long lenses—another reminder, as if he needed another reminder, of how poorly his cloistered life at Ashk'lan had prepared him for this sudden immersion in the treacherous currents of the world. He could paint, sit in meditation, or run for days over rough trail, but painting, running, and meditation were meager skills when set against the machinations of the men who had murdered his father, slaughtered the Shin monks, and very nearly killed him as well. Not for the first time, he found himself envying Valyn's training.
For eight years Kaden had struggled to quell his own desires and hopes, fears and sorrows, had fought what felt like an endless battle against himself. Over and over the Shin had intoned their mantras: Hope's edge is sharper than steel. To want is to lack. To care is to die. There was truth to the words, far more truth than Kaden had imagined when he first arrived in the mountains as a child, but if he had learned anything in the past few days, days filled with blood, death, and confusion, he had learned the limits to that truth. A steel edge, as it turned out, was plenty sharp. Clinging to the self might kill you, but not if someone put a knife in your heart first.
In the space of a few days, Kaden's foes had multiplied beyond his own persistent failings, and these new enemies wore polished armor, carried swords in their fists, wielded lies by the thousands. If he was going to survive, if he was to take his father's place on the Unhewn Throne, he needed to know about long lenses and swords, politics and people, about all the things the Shin had neglected in their single-minded effort to train him in the empty trance that was the vaniate. It would take years to fill in the gaps, and he did not have years. His father was dead, had been dead for months already, and that meant, prepared or not, Kaden hui'Malkeenian was the Emperor of Annur.
Until someone kills me, he added silently.
Given the events of the past few days, that possibility loomed suddenly, strikingly large. That armed men had arrived with orders to murder him and destroy the monastery was terrifying enough, but that they were comprised of his own Aedolian Guard—an order sworn to protect and defend him—that they were commanded by high-ranking Annurians, men at the very top of the pyramid of imperial politics, was almost beyond belief. In some ways, returning to the capital and sitting the Unhewn Throne seemed like the surest way to help his enemies finish what they had started.
Of course, he thought grimly, if I'm murdered in Annur, it will mean I made it back to Annur, which would be a success of sorts.
Valyn gestured toward the lip of the rocky escarpment that shielded them. "When you look, look slowly, Your Radiance," he said. "The eye is attracted to motion."
That much, at least, Kaden knew. He'd spent enough time tracking crag cats and lost goats to know how to remain hidden. He shifted his weight onto his elbows, inching up until his eyes cleared the low spine of rock. Below and to the west, maybe a quarter mile distant, hunched precariously on a narrow ledge between the cliffs below and the vast, chiseled peaks above, stood Ashk'lan, sole monastery of the Shin monks, and Kaden's home.
Or what remained of it.
The Ashk'lan of Kaden's memory was a cold place but bright, scoured clean, an austere palette of pale stone, wide strokes of snow, vertiginous rivers shifting their glittering ribbons, ice slicking the north-facing cliffs, all piled beneath a hard, blue slab of sky. The Aedolians had destroyed it. Wide sweeps of soot smudged the ledges and boulders, and fire had lashed the junipers to blackened stumps. The refectory, meditation hall, and dormitory stood in ruins. While the cold stone of the walls had refused to burn, the wooden rafters, the shingles, the casings of the windows and broad pine doors had all succumbed to the flame, dragging sections of masonry with them as they fell. Even the sky was dark, smudged with oily smoke that still smoldered from the wreckage.
"There," Valyn said, pointing to movement near the northern end of the monastery. "The Aedolians. They've made camp, probably waiting for Micijah Ut."
"Gonna be a long wait," Laith said, sliding up beside them. The flier grinned.
Before the arrival of Valyn's Wing, all Kaden's knowledge of the Kettral, of Annur's most secretive and deadly soldiers, came from the stories he had lapped up as a child, tales that had led him to imagine grim, empty-eyed killers, men and women steeped in blood and destruction. The stories had been partly right: Valyn's black eyes were cold as last year's coals, and Laith—the Wing's flier—didn't seem at all concerned about the wreckage below or the carnage they had left behind. They were clearly soldiers, disciplined and well trained, and yet, they seemed somehow young to Kaden.
Laith's casual smile, his obvious delight in irritating Gwenna and provoking Annick, the way he drummed on his knee whenever he got bored, which was often—it was all behavior the Shin would have beaten out of him before his second year. That Valyn's Wing could fly and kill was clear enough, but Kaden found himself worrying, wondering if they were truly ready for the difficult road ahead. Not that he was ready himself, but it would have been nice to think that someone had the situation in hand.
Micijah Ut, at least, was one foe Kaden no longer needed to fear. That the massive Aedolian in all his armor had been killed by a middle-aged woman wielding a pair of knives would have strained belief had Kaden not seen the body. The sight had brought him a muted measure of satisfaction, as though he could set the weight of steel and dead flesh in the scales to balance, in some small part, the rest of the slaughter.
"Anyone want to sneak into their camp with Ut's body?" Laith asked. "We could prop him up somewhere, make it look like he's drinking ale or taking a leak? See how long it takes them to notice the fucker's not breathing?" He looked from Valyn to Kaden, eyebrows raised. "No? That's not why we came back here?"
The group of them had returned to Ashk'lan that morning, flying west from their meager camp in the heart of the Bone Mountains, the same camp where they had fought and killed the men chasing them down, Aedolians and traitorous Kettral both. The trip had occasioned a heated debate: there was broad agreement that someone needed to go, both to check for survivors and to see if there was anything to be learned from the Annurian soldiers who had remained behind when Ut and Tarik Adiv chased Kaden into the peaks. The disagreement centered on just who ought to make the trip.
Valyn didn't want to risk bringing anyone outside his own Wing, but Kaden pointed out that if the Kettral wanted to make use of the snaking network of goat tracks surrounding the monastery, they needed a monk familiar with the land. Rampuri Tan, of course, was the obvious choice—he knew Ashk'lan better than Kaden, not to mention the fact that, unlike Kaden, he could actually fight —and the older monk, despite Valyn's misgivings, seemed to consider his participation a foregone conclusion. Pyrre, meanwhile, argued that it was stupid to return in the first place.
"The monks are dead," she observed, "may Ananshael unknit their celibate souls. You can't help them by poking at the bodies."
Kaden wondered what it felt like to be the assassin, to worship the Lord of the Grave, to have lived so close to death for so long that it held no terror, no wonder. Still, it was not the bodies he wanted to go back for. There was a chance, however small, that the soldiers had captured some of the monks rather than killing them. It wasn't clear what Kaden could do if they had, but with the Kettral at his back it might be possible to rescue one or two. At the very least, he could look.
Tan had dismissed the notion as sentimental folly. The reason to go back was to observe the remaining Aedolians, to ferret out their intentions; Kaden's guilt was just further evidence of his failure to achieve true detachment. Maybe the older monk was right. A true Shin would have rooted out the coiling tightness that snaked about his heart, would have cut away, one by one, the barbs of emotion. But then, aside from Tan and Kaden himself, the Shin were dead: two hundred monks murdered in the night because of him, men and boys whose only goal was the empty calm of the vaniate burned and butchered where they slept to cover up an Annurian coup. Whatever waited at Ashk'lan, it had happened because of Kaden. He had to go back.
The rest was simple. Valyn commanded the Wing, Valyn obeyed the Emperor, and so, in spite of Tan's objections and Pyrre's, in spite of his own concerns, Valyn had bowed his head and obeyed, flying Kaden along with the rest of the Wing to discover what was left of his mountain home. They landed a little to the east, out of sight of the monastery, then covered the final miles on foot. The track was easy, mostly downhill, but the tension built in Kaden's chest as they drew closer.
The Aedolians hadn't bothered to hide their slaughter. There was no need. Ashk'lan lay well beyond the border of the empire, too high in the mountains for the Urghul, too far south for the Edish, too far from anywhere for merchants and traders, and so the brown-robed bodies had been left to litter the central courtyard, some burned, others cut down as they fled, dried blood staining the stones.
"Lots of monks," Laith pointed out, nodding toward the monastery. "All pretty dead."
"What about them?" Valyn asked, pointing toward a row of figures seated cross-legged on the far side of the ledge, staring out over the steppe. "Are they alive?"
Laith raised the long lens. "Nope. Stabbed. Right in the back." He shook his head. "Not sure why they're sitting there. No one tied them."
Kaden looked at the slumped men for a moment, then closed his eyes, imagining the scene.
"They didn't run," he said. "They sought refuge in the vaniate."
"Yeah ..." the flier said, drawing out the syllable skeptically. "Doesn't look like they found it."
Kaden stared at the corpses, remembering the awesome emotional vacancy of the trance, the absence of fear, or anger, or worry. He tried to imagine what they had felt sitting there, looking out over the wide green steppe while their home burned a few paces behind them, watching the cold stars as they waited for the knife. "The vaniate might surprise you," he said quietly.
"Well, I'm tired of being surprised," Valyn growled. He rolled onto his side to look at Kaden, and once again Kaden found himself trying to see his brother—the brother he had once known—beneath the scars and lacerations, behind those unnaturally black eyes. Valyn the child had been quick to smile, to laugh, but Valyn the soldier looked harried, haunted, hunted, as though he distrusted the very sky above him, doubted his own battered hand and the naked sword it held.
Kaden knew the outlines of the story, how Valyn, too, had been stalked by those who wanted to bring down the Malkeenian line. In some ways, Valyn had had it worse than Kaden himself. While the Aedolians had struck suddenly and brutally into the heart of Ashk'lan, the soldiers had been strangers to Kaden, and the sense of injustice, of betrayal, remained abstract. Valyn, on the other hand, had seen his closest friend murdered by his fellow soldiers. He'd watched as the military order to which he'd devoted his life failed him—failed him or betrayed him. Kaden still worried about the possibility that the Kettral command, the Eyrie itself, was somehow complicit in the plot. Valyn had reason enough to be tired and wary, and yet there was something else in that gaze, something that worried Kaden, a darkness deeper than suffering or sorrow.
"We wait here," Valyn went on, "out of sight, until Annick, Talal, and Gwenna get back. If they don't find any monks, living monks, we hump out the way we came in, and get back on the 'Kent-kissing bird."
Kaden nodded. The tension from the walk in had lodged deep in his stomach, a tight knot of loss, and sorrow, and anger. He set about loosening it. He had insisted on coming back for the survivors, but it looked as though there were no survivors. The residual emotion was doing him no good; was, in fact, obscuring his judgment. As he tried to focus on his breath, however, the images of Akiil's face, of Pater's, of Scial Nin's, kept floating into his mind, startling in their immediacy and detail. Somewhere down there, sprawled among those blasted buildings, lay everyone he knew, and everyone, aside from Rampuri Tan, who knew him.
Someone else, someone without the Shin training, might find relief in the knowledge that those faces would fade over time, that the memories would blur, the edges soften; but the monks had taught him not to forget. The memories of his slaughtered friends would remain forever vivid and immediate, the shape of their sprawled forms would remain, carved in all their awful detail. Which is why, he thought grimly, you have to unhitch the feeling from the fact. That skill, too, the Shin had taught him, as though to balance the other.
Behind him, soft cloth scuffed over stone. He turned to find Annick and Talal, the Wing's sniper and leach, approaching, sliding over the wide slabs of rock on their bellies as though they'd been born to the motion. They pulled up just behind Valyn, the sniper immediately nocking an arrow to her bow, Talal just shaking his head.
"It's bad," he said quietly. "No prisoners." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley. Copyright © 2014 Brian Staveley. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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