Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it's too late.
An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test.
At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor's final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothingand risk everythingto see that justice is meted out.
Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne
The Emperor's Blades
The Providence of Fire
The Last Mortal Bond
Other books in the world of the Unhewn Throne
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The Emperor's Blades
Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, Book 1
By Brian Staveley
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2013 Brian Staveley
All rights reserved.
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 mountains, 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.CHAPTER 2
Kaden crossed the ledges just outside Ashk'lan's central square at a run, then slowed as he entered the courtyard. His alarm, so sharp and palpable when he first saw the slaughtered goat, had faded as he descended from the high peaks and drew closer to the warmth and companionship of the monastery. Now, moving toward the main cluster of buildings, he felt foolish to have run so fast. Whatever killed the animal remained a mystery, to be sure, but the mountain trails posed their own dangers, especially to someone foolish enough to run them in the darkness. Kaden slowed to a walk, gathering his thoughts.
Bad enough I lost the goat. Heng would whip me bloody if I managed to break my own leg in the process.
The gravel of the monastery paths crunched beneath his feet, the only sound save for the keening of the wind as it gusted and fell, skirling through the gnarled branches and between the cold stones. The monks were all inside already, hunched over their bowls or seated cross-legged in the meditation hall, fasting, pursuing emptiness. When he reached the refectory, a long, low stone building weathered by storm and rain until it looked almost a part of the mountain itself, Kaden paused to scoop a handful of water from the wooden barrel outside the door. As the draft washed down his throat, he took a moment to steady his breathing and slow his heart. It wouldn't do to approach his umial in a state of mental disarray. Above all else, the Shin valued stillness, clarity. Kaden had been whipped by his masters for rushing, for shouting, for acting in haste, or moving without consideration. Besides, he was home now. Whatever killed the goat wasn't likely to come prowling among the stern buildings.
Up close, Ashk'lan didn't look like much, especially at night: three long, stone halls with wooden roofs — the dormitory, refectory, and meditation hall — forming three sides to a rough square, their pale granite walls washed as though with milk in the moonlight. The whole compound perched on the cliff's edge, and the fourth side of the square opened out onto cloud, sky, and an unobstructed view of the foothills and distant steppe to the west. Already the grasslands far below were vibrant with the spring froth of flowers: swaying blue chalenders, clusters of nun's blossom, riots of tiny white faith knots. At night, however, beneath the cold, inscrutable gaze of the stars, the steppe was invisible. Staring out past the ledges, Kaden found himself facing a vast emptiness, a great dark void. It felt as though Ashk'lan stood at the world's end, clinging to the cliffs, holding vigil against a nothingness that threatened to engulf creation. After a second swig of water, he turned away. The night had grown cold, and now that he had stopped running, gusts of wind off the Bone Mountains sliced through his sweaty robe like shards of ice.
With a rumble in his stomach, he turned toward the yellow glow and murmur of conversation emanating from the windows of the refectory. At this hour — just after sunset but before night prayer — most of the monks would be taking a modest evening meal of salted mutton, turnips, and hard, dark bread. Heng, Kaden's umial, would be inside with the rest, and with any luck, Kaden could report what he had seen, dash off a quick painting to show the scene, and sit down to a warm meal of his own. Shin fare was far more meager than the delicacies he remembered from his early years in the Dawn Palace, before his father sent him away, but the monks had a saying: Hunger is flavor.
They were great ones for sayings, the Shin, passing them down from one generation to the next as though trying to make up for the order's lack of liturgy and formal ritual. The Blank God cared nothing for the pomp and pageantry of the urban temples. While the young gods glutted themselves on music, prayer, and offerings laid upon elaborate altars, the Blank God demanded of the Shin one thing only: sacrifice, not of wine or wealth, but of the self. The mind is a flame, the monks said. Blow it out.
After eight years, Kaden still wasn't sure what that meant, and with his stomach rumbling impatiently, he couldn't be bothered to contemplate it. He pushed open the heavy refectory door, letting the gentle hum of conversation wash over him. Monks were scattered around the hall, some at rough tables, their heads bent over their bowls, others standing in front of a fire that crackled in the hearth at the far end of the room. Several sat playing stones, their eyes blank as they studied the lines of resistance and attack unfolding across the board.
The men were as varied as the lands from which they had come — tall, pale, blocky Edishmen from the far north, where the sea spent half the year as ice; wiry Hannans, hands and forearms inked with the patterns of the jungle tribes just north of the Waist; even a few Manjari, green-eyed, their brown skin a shade darker than Kaden's own. Despite their disparate appearances, however, the monks shared something, a hardness, a stillness born of a life lived in the hard, still mountains far from the comforts of the world where they had been raised.
The Shin were a small order, with barely two hundred monks at Ashk'lan. The young gods — Eira, Heqet, Orella, and the rest — drew adherents from three continents and enjoyed temples in almost every town and city, palatial spaces draped with silk and crusted with gold, some of which rivaled the dwellings of the richest ministers and atreps. Heqet alone must have commanded thousands of priests and ten times that number who came to worship at his altar when they felt the need of courage.
The less savory gods had their adherents as well. Stories abounded of the halls of Rassambur and the bloody servants of Ananshael, tales of chalices carved from skulls and dripping marrow, of infants strangled in their sleep, of dark orgies where sex and death were hideously mingled. Some claimed that only a tenth of those who entered the doors ever returned. Taken by the Lord of Bones, people whispered. Taken by Death himself.
The older gods, aloof from the world and indifferent to the affairs of humans, drew fewer adherents. Nonetheless, they had their names — Intarra and her consort, Hull the Bat, Pta and Astar'ren — and scattered throughout the three continents, thousands worshipped those names.
Only the Blank God remained nameless, faceless. The Shin held that he was the oldest, the most cryptic and powerful. Outside Ashk'lan, most people thought he was dead, or had never existed. Slaughtered by Ae, some said, when she made the world and the heavens and stars. That seemed perfectly plausible to Kaden. He had seen no sign of the god in his years running up and down the mountain passes.
He scanned the room for his fellow acolytes, and from a table over by the wall, Akiil caught his eye. He was seated on a long bench with Serkhan and fat Phirum Prumm — the only acolyte at Ashk'lan who maintained his girth despite the endless running, hauling, and building required by the older monks. Kaden nodded in response and was about to cross to them when he spotted Heng on the other side of the hall. He stifled a sigh — the umial would impose some sort of nasty penance if his pupil sat down to dinner without reporting back first. Hopefully it wouldn't take long to relate the tale of the slaughtered goat; then Kaden could join the others; then he could finally have a bowl of stew.
Excerpted from The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley. Copyright © 2013 Brian Staveley. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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