The trilogy that began with The Emperor's Blades and continued in The Providence of Fire reaches its epic conclusion, as war engulfs the Annurian Empire in Brian Staveley's The Last Mortal Bond
The ancient csestriim are back to finish their purge of humanity; armies march against the capital; leaches, solitary beings who draw power from the natural world to fuel their extraordinary abilities, maneuver on all sides to affect the outcome of the war; and capricious gods walk the earth in human guise with agendas of their own.
But the three imperial siblings at the heart of it allValyn, Adare, and Kadencome to understand that even if they survive the holocaust unleashed on their world, there may be no reconciling their conflicting visions of the future.
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
About the Author
BRIAN STAVELEY has taught literature, religion, history, and philosophy, all subjects that influence his writing, and holds an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. He works as an editor for Antilever Press, and has published poetry and essays, both in print and on-line. He lives in Vermont with his wife and young son, and divides his time between running trails, splitting wood, writing, and baby-wrangling. The Last Mortal Bond is his third novel, following The Emperor's Blades and The Providence of Fire.
Read an Excerpt
The Last Mortal Bond
Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, Book III
By Brian Staveley
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Brian Staveley
All rights reserved.
Men the size of mountains plowed waist-deep through the world's oceans. Polished blades — each one long enough to level cities — flashed sunlight. Boots crushed delicate coastlines to rubble, obliterated fishing towns, gouged craters in the soft, green fields of Sia and Kresh.
This is the way the world ends. This was Kaden's first thought, staring down on the destruction from above.
A city, after all, was only stone; a forest, no more than sap-wet wood. What was a river's course, but a slash carved through the land? Apply enough force — the world itself would deform. The shapes of ridge and valley meant nothing. Bring enough power to bear, and you could split cliffs, tear down mountains, rend the very bedrock and see it scattered across the waves. Bring fire, and the world would burn. Bring water, and it would sink beneath the deluge. The old forms of sea and stone could be remade in flood and deflagration, and those other shapes, the desperate, petty lines that men and women dreamed across the dirt to indicate their kingdoms, their little empires, those, too, would be annihilated with all the rest in a heartbeat's armageddon.
No. This was Kaden's second thought. It is not the world. It is just a map.
A vast map, true, the size of a small parade ground, the most expensive map in all the world, commissioned by a vain Annurian Republic for their council chamber, but still just a map. Legions of craftsmen had labored day and night for months to complete the project; masons to carve the mountains and seaside cliffs, gardeners to cultivate the myriad grasses and perfect stunted trees, hydraulic engineers to guide the rivers in their courses, jewelers to cut the sapphires for the mountain tarns, the glaciers of glass and diamond.
It stretched the full length of the hall, some two hundred feet from end to end. The granite of the Bone Mountains came from the Bone Mountains, the red stone of the Ancaz from the Ancaz. Pumps hidden beneath the surface fed the great rivers of Vash and Eridroa — the Shirvian, the Vena, the Agavani, and the Black — along with dozens of streams whose names Kaden didn't know, those flowing between high banks and around oxbows, over miniature cataracts and through wet swamps built up from soft green moss, emptying finally into the small world's seas and oceans, oceans that, by some clever contrivance, rose and fell with the orbit of the moon.
One could stroll the catwalks above, staring down at astonishing replicas of the great cities: Olon and Sia, Dombâng and the Bend. Annur itself sprawled over a space the length of Kaden's arm. He could make out the sparkling facets of the Temple of Intarra; the great avenue of the Godsway, complete with diminutive statuary; the tiny canalboats swinging at anchor in the Basin; the stark red walls of the Dawn Palace; and, stabbing like a lance up past the catwalk, so high that you could reach out and touch the tower's top without stooping, Intarra's Spear.
Like the men and women who sat day after day bickering above it, the massive map was both magnificent and petty. Until that moment, it had served a single function: to make those seated above it feel like gods. To that end, it had showed nothing more than a dream world, one unmarred by all their failures.
No fires raged unchecked in the northern forests. No towns burned in the south. No one had churned the grass fields of Ghan to mud or blockaded the desperate port of Keoh-Kâng. Small, painted soldiers indicated the location of field armies. Tiny men representing Adare's treacherous legions and the council's own more numerous Republican Guard dotted the terrain, swords raised in motionless postures of challenge or triumph. They were always standing, those false men. They never bled. Of war's ravages and destruction, the map bore no trace. Evidently Annur lacked the craftsmen to sculpt starvation, or terror, or death.
We didn't need craftsmen, Kaden thought. We needed soldiers with heavy boots to remind us what we've done, to grind this little world of ours to mud.
The sudden, unexpected, undeniable violence made the map more accurate, more true, but these men with their steel had not come to bring truth to the world's most elaborate map. Kaden shifted his gaze from the destruction playing out below to another knot of armed men surging across the catwalk. Aedolians. The men charged with guarding the rulers of Annur.
Despite his own training, Kaden felt his stomach lurch. Something had obviously gone awry. Maut Amut — the First Shield of the Guard — would not have ordered his men into a sealed meeting of the council otherwise. This was no exercise. Each soldier wore half his weight in gleaming armor, and all had broadblades drawn as they spread out through the hall shouting orders, taking up positions at the perimeter, guarding the doors to keep someone out ... or in.
Half the members of the council were trying to stumble to their feet, tripping on their long robes, spilling wine over carefully cut silk, bellowing questions or crying out in dismay. The rest sat rooted in their chairs, eyes wide, jaws agape, as they tried to make some sense of the unfolding madness. Kaden ignored them, kept his own gaze trained on the Aedolians.
Behind these men in steel, the memory of other soldiers filled Kaden's mind, Aedolians hacking their vicious way through Ashk'lan, murdering the monks, hounding Kaden himself through the mountains. He had spent months after his return to the Dawn Palace reviewing the records of the remaining guardsmen, scouring their personal histories for any hint of treachery, of allegiance to Adare or to Ran il Tornja. The entire guard was placed on parole while hundreds of scribes investigated thousands of stories, and in the end, the council had dismissed more than a hundred before reinstating the rest. Kaden reminded himself of those measures, but he could feel the tension in his shoulders all the same.
See the world, he told himself, taking a long breath then letting it out, not your dream of the world.
Two dozen Aedolians charged over the suspended catwalk, then surrounded the council table.
Kaden rose to his feet, discarding his own fear as he did so.
"What is happening?" Despite his misgivings, his voice was steady.
Maut Amut stepped forward. The furious motion of the Aedolian entrance was finished. Waves lapped at the shore of the map, tiny tsunami. Sun streamed through the skylights overhead, warm and silent, playing over the armor of the soldiers, glinting off their naked blades. The members of the council went suddenly silent, frozen, like statues littering the catwalks, caught in the various postures of their own unreadiness.
"An attack, First Speaker," Amut replied grimly, eyes scanning the walls, the doors, "inside the palace itself."
Kaden glanced around the room.
Amut shook his head. "We are not certain."
The First Shield grimaced. "Someone fast. Dangerous."
"Dangerous enough to enter the palace, to get inside Intarra's Spear unnoticed, to subdue three of my men, three Aedolians, and then to disappear."CHAPTER 2
Night was a foreign nation.
It had always felt that way to Adare hui'Malkeenian, as though the world changed after the setting of the sun. Shadow elided hard edges, hid form, rendered sunlight's familiar chambers strange. Darkness leached color from the brightest silk. Moonlight silvered water and glass, made lambent and cold the day's basic substances. Even lamps, like the two that sat on the desk before her now, caused the world to shift and twitch with the motion of the captured flame. Night could work this unsettling transformation on the most familiar spaces, and these cold rooms high in the stony keep at the edge of Aergad were hardly familiar. Adare had lived inside them almost a year without ever feeling welcome or safe, even in the daytime. Night transported her even further, to a place that was hard, and alien, and barbarous.
The sounds of night, too, required translation. Morning footsteps in the hallway were normal — servants and castle staff going about their work. Past midnight, however, those same footsteps sounded furtive. A shout at noontime was just a shout; a night cry might herald danger, disaster. The courtyard outside and below Adare's window was a chaos of activity during the day, but this late, with the gates long locked, it was usually silent, and so, when she heard the clatter of hooves on the cobbles, the terse commands snatched away by the wind, she set down her seal of office abruptly, careful to keep the ink from puddling on the pages, then, with her heart hammering inside her, crossed to the closed window.
A messenger at midnight was not the same thing as a messenger at noon.
She throttled her fear as she nudged open the shutters and the northern air slid cold over her sweaty skin. A rider at this hour could mean anything — Urghul crossing the Black River, Urghul already across the Black, Long Fist's savages burning another border town, or his mad leach, Balendin, twisting the fear of Adare's people into some new, foul kenning. A rider could mean she was losing. Could mean she'd already lost.
Reflexively, she looked to the river first, the Haag, carving its way south just beneath the high walls of the city. She could make out the stone arches of the single bridge spanning the flow, but night hid from her any sign of the sentries posted there. She took a deep breath, relaxed her hands on the casement. She'd half expected to find the Urghul, she realized, barely a quarter mile distant and storming the bridge, ready to lay siege to the city.
Because you're a fool, she told herself grimly. If Balendin and the Urghul had broken through Ran il Tornja's legions, she would have heard more than a few horses on the cobbles. She shifted her attention to the courtyard below.
Aergad was an old city, as old as Annur itself, and the castle she had taken for her own had been the ancestral seat of the kings who ruled the southern Romsdals long before the rise of her empire. Both the castle and the city walls looked their age. Though the builders had known their work, there had been no need to defend Aergad in more than a century, and Adare could see gaps in the tops of the ramparts, gaping spaces where ice had eaten away at the mortar, sending huge blocks of stone tumbling into the river below. She had ordered the walls repaired, but masons were scarce, and il Tornja needed them to the east, where he was fighting his months-long holding action against the Urghul.
Moonlight threw the jagged shapes of the southern wall onto the rough stones of the courtyard. The messenger was dismounting in the shadow; Adare could see his shape, and the shape of his horse, but no face, no uniform. She tried to read something in the posture, in the set of those shoulders, anything that would warn her of the message that he carried.
A whimper broke the night's quiet, an infant's cry from the room behind her. Grimacing, Adare turned away from the courtyard, to where Sanlitun hui'Malkeenian, the second of that name, twisted uneasily in his small wooden crib, disturbed by the hooves on the cobbles or by the cold northern air from the open window. Adare crossed to him quickly, hoping that he hadn't truly awoken, that she could soothe him with a soft hand and a few words, that he would slide back into his slumber before she had to confront whatever news was coming.
"Shhh," she whispered. "It's all right, my little boy. Shh ..."
Sometimes it was easy to soothe him. On the better nights, whispering meaningless comfort to her squirming child, Adare felt as though someone else was speaking, a woman who was older, slower, more certain, some other mother who understood nothing of politics or finance, who would fumble even simple figures, but who knew in her bones the soothing of a colicky child. Most times, however, she felt lost, baffled by her motherhood, desperate with her love for the tiny child and terrified by her inability to calm him. She would hold him close, whisper over and over into his ear, and his body would shudder itself still for a while. Then, when she thought the grief had passed, when she pulled back to study his face, his chest would heave, the sobs would force his small mouth wide, and the tears would well up all over again.
He had her eyes. Looking into them when he cried was like staring into a mountain pool and finding red-gold embers glowing unquenched beneath the water's surface. Adare wondered if her own eyes looked the same behind tears. It seemed a long time since she had cried.
"Shh, my little boy," she whispered, running the back of her fingers softly over his cheek. "It's all right."
Sanlitun screwed up his small face, strained against the swaddling, cried out once more, then subsided.
"It's all right," she whispered again.
Only when she returned to the window, when she looked out once more and saw the rider had moved into the moonlight, did she realize she was wrong. It was not all right. Maybe the child had known before she did who had come. Maybe it wasn't the cold or the wind that had woken him at all, but some infant's knowledge that his father was near, his father, the Csestriim, the kenarang, general of Adare's shrinking empire, murderer of her own father, possibly a mortal foe, and one of her only allies. Ran il Tornja was here, striding across the courtyard, leaving a groom to lead away a horse that looked half dead. He glanced up toward her window, met her eyes, and saluted, a casual motion, almost dismissive.
This sudden arrival would have been odd enough in the daytime, but it was not daytime. It was well past midnight. Adare pulled the window closed, tried to still her sudden shivering, straightened her back, and turned to face the doors to her chamber, arranging her face before he entered.
* * *
"You should have the men on the gate flogged," il Tornja said as soon as he'd closed the door behind him. "Or killed. They checked to make certain it was me, but let my guardsmen pass without a second glance."
He dropped into one wooden chair, shoved out another with the heel of a boot, put his feet up on it, and leaned back. The nighttime ride that had half killed his horse didn't seem to have wearied the kenarang in the least. A little mud speckled his boots. The wind had been at his dark hair, but his green riding cloak and tailored uniform were immaculate. His polished sword belt gleamed. The gems laid into the hilt of his sword glittered with all the brightness of lies. Adare met his eyes.
"Are we so spoiled for soldiers that we can start knocking them off for minor infractions?"
Il Tornja raised his brows. "I'd hardly rate a lapse in the Emperor's security a minor infraction." He shook his head. "You should have my soldiers at the gate, not the Sons of Flame."
"You need your men to fight the Urghul," Adare pointed out, "unless you plan to prosecute this war all by yourself. The Sons are capable guardians. They let your men pass because they recognized you. They trust you."
"Sanlitun trusted me," he pointed out. "I put a knife in his back."
Adare's breath caught like a hook in her throat. Her skin blazed.
My father, she reminded herself. He's talking about my father, not my boy. Il Tornja had murdered the Emperor, but he had no reason to harm the child, his own child. Still, the urge to turn in her chair, to see the infant sleeping safely behind her, settled on Adare as strongly as a pair of clutching hands. She forced it away.
"Your leash is shorter than it was when you killed my father," she replied, meeting his eyes.
He smiled, raised a hand to his collarbone as though testing for the invisible cord of flame that Nira had set around his neck. Adare would have been a good deal more comforted if she could still see the 'Kent-kissing thing, but a writhing noose of fire would draw more than a few eyes, and she had enough problems without admitting her Mizran Councillor was a leach and her kenarang an untrusted murderer and a Csestriim on top of that. Nira insisted that the kenning was still in place, and that would have to be good enough.
"Such a light collar," il Tornja said. "Sometimes I forget that it's even there."
"You don't forget anything. Why are you here?"
Excerpted from The Last Mortal Bond by Brian Staveley. Copyright © 2016 Brian Staveley. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Uhm...Wow. Staveley stuck the landing of this trilogy and then some. This is the best new epic fantasy I've read in forever. The last writer whose first complete story hit me like this was...I'm not even certain. Staveley balances scope and narrative in spectacular fashion, allowing the background to stand out in just enough detail to give you visions of the mountains and monuments in the distant past of this world in all their vastness, and yet he never loses the focus on the present narrative and its urgency. He's also managed to capture some of the flavor of the cynical realism about characters and motives that shape Martin's work without falling into the crevasse of ugliness and despair in which A Song of Ice and Fire, however beautifully written, sometimes wallows. At the same time he's got some of the grand heroics of the epic fantasy tradition before it took the cynical/self-aware turn that seems to have swallowed up most of the major writers in the field. The whole trilogy turns out to be a powerful meditation on what it means to be human, what makes us human, and the cost of it all--"it all" being life and the beauty, pain, peace, ugliness, strength, weakness, all the oxymorons and paradoxes that make it up. and in the end, in perhaps his greatest thematic decision, Staveley refuses to answer except in ambiguity and implication invites the reader to decide exactly what the answer is or should be. It examines death, its role, its weight, its curses and blessings in as profound a way as anything I've read in a very long time. An Addendum: I probably actually read only half this book--the other half I listened to, and Stephen Vance's performance on the audiobook is absolutely spectacular. Wonderfully read.
Author Brian Staveley turns it up to volume 11 in the final book of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne Trilogy. Much like ‘The Emperor’s Blades’ and ‘The Providence of Fire,’ ‘The Last Mortal Bond’ shows you the gruesome reality of what is to come of Annur from familiar characters. Unlike the past two novels, Staveley grabs the story in his fist and packs it down your throat from the first chapter. Things have developed—well over two novels—and now it felt like it was the author’s time to burst this chaotic, exciting, violent, brutal climax onto the reader’s eyes (and emotions). Another note: No new characters have a POV. There’s no time for new characters to tell their story, because the book is constantly hulking down toward a violent ending you can practically sense from the first page. I often have an issue with trilogies, and this could just be me, but the last book almost always disappoints. It may feel rushed, or just bulls***ted through, but the ending of ‘The Last Mortal Bond’ was a work of art. Anything you wonder as you read the climax—which is about 100+ pages of raging war written on top of another 500+ pages of grim reality and action (at the highest level one can write fantasy fiction)—will be answered. I focus on the ending of the book, which I hate to do because every single damn page of this book felt like a detailed script of war, because when something ends, it sucks when it ends poorly. This ending is a fist. Sometimes a fist can kill you; sometimes it can only hurt you. My influences in fantasy were George R.R. Martin, Robin Hobb, Steven Erikson, and Guy Gavriel Kay, but none of those great authors wrote a novel that inspired me, like Brian Staveley’s ‘The Emperor’s Blades,’ to start writing my own stories and novels—which I’ve fallen in love doing so. Staveley’s worlds give me a vacation from reality, his characters always remind me of someone I actually know, and his prose and narrative has an edge to it as if the story is being told to you by a battle-tested, intelligence, and foul-mouthed survivor of the events from the novels. ‘The Last Mortal Bond’ is the best book of 2016, and I’m confident this statement will remain true at the end of 2016.