In The Last Mortal Bond by Brian Staveley, 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 all–Valyn, Adare, and Kaden–come to understand that even if they survive the holocaust unleashed on their world, there may be no reconciling their conflicting visions of the future. Please enjoy this excerpt.
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 canal boats 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.”
Copyright © 2016 by Brian Staveley
What to read more? Head over to Tor.com to read chapters 2-7!
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