The Emperor’s Blades: Chapters 1-6

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Welcome back to Fantasy Firsts. Our program continues today with an extended excerpt from The Emperor’s Bladesthe start of a series about a trio of siblings, their destinies entangled with ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.

The emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life path on which their father set them, their destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods.

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. An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. 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 nothing—and risk everything—to see that justice is meted out.

ONE

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.

 

TWO

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, he thought ruefully. 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.

Huy Heng was hard to miss. In many ways, he seemed like he belonged in one of the fine wine halls of Annur rather than here, cloistered in a remote monastery a hundred leagues beyond the border of the empire. While the other monks went about their duties with quiet sobriety, Heng hummed as he tended the goats, sang as he lugged great sacks of clay up from the shallows, and kept up a steady stream of jests as he chopped turnips for the refectory pots. He could even tell jokes while he beat his pupils bloody. At the moment, he was regaling the brothers at his table with a tale involving elaborate hand gestures and some sort of birdcall. When he saw Kaden approach, however, the grin slipped from his face.

“I found the goat,” Kaden began without preamble.

Heng extended both hands, as though to stop the words before they reached him.

“I’m not your umial any longer,” he said.

Kaden blinked. Scial Nin, the abbot, reassigned acolytes and umials every year or so, but not usually by surprise. Not in the middle of dinner.

“What happened?” he asked, suddenly cautious.

“It’s time for you to move on.”

Now?

“The present is the present. Tomorrow will still be ‘now.’ ”

Kaden swallowed an acerbic remark; even if Heng was no longer his umial, the monk could still whip him. “Who am I getting?” he asked instead.

“Rampuri Tan,” Heng replied, his voice flat, devoid of its usual laughter.

Kaden stared. Rampuri Tan did not take pupils. Sometimes, despite his faded brown robe and shaved head, despite the days he spent sitting cross-legged, eyes fixed in his devotion to the Blank God, Tan didn’t seem like a monk at all. There was nothing Kaden could put his finger on, but the novices felt it, too, had developed a hundred theories, attributing to the man a series of implausible pasts by turn both shadowy and glorious: he earned the scars on his face fighting wild animals in the arena at The Bend; he was a murderer and a thief, who had repented of his crimes and taken up a life of contemplation; he was the dispossessed brother of some ord or atrep, hiding at Ashk’lan only long enough to build his revenge. Kaden wasn’t much inclined to believe any of the stories, but he had noticed the common thread: violence. Violence and danger. Whoever Rampuri Tan had been before arriving at Ashk’lan, Kaden wasn’t eager to have the man for his umial.

“He is expecting you,” Heng continued, something like pity tingeing his voice. “I promised to send you to his cell as soon as you arrived.”

Kaden spared a glance over his shoulder for the table where his friends sat, slurping down their stew and enjoying the few unstructured minutes of conversation that were allowed them each day.

“Now,” Heng said, breaking into his thoughts.

The walk from the refectory to the dormitory was not far—a hundred paces across the square, then up a short path between two lines of stunted junipers. Kaden covered the distance quickly, eager to be out of the wind, and pushed open the heavy wooden door. All the monks, even Scial Nin, the abbot, slept in identical chambers opening off the long, central hallway. The cells were small, barely large enough to fit a pallet, a rough woven mat, and a couple of shelves, but then, the Shin spent most of their time outdoors, in the workshops, or in meditation.

Inside the building and out of the slicing wind, Kaden slowed, readying himself for the encounter. It was hard to know what to expect—some masters liked to test a student immediately; some preferred to wait and watch, judging the aptitudes and weaknesses of the younger monk before deciding on a course of instruction.

He’s just another new master, Kaden told himself. Heng was new a year ago, and you got used to him.

And yet, something about the situation felt odd, unsettling. First the slaughtered goat, then this unexpected transfer when he should have been seated on a long bench with a steaming bowl in front of him, arguing with Akiil and the rest of the acolytes…

He filled his lungs slowly, then emptied them. Worry was doing no good.

Live now, he told himself, rehearsing one of the standard Shin aphorisms. The future is a dream.And yet, a part of his thoughts—a voice that refused to be stilled or settled—reminded him that not all dreams were pleasant, that sometimes, no matter how one thrashed or turned, it was impossible to awake.

 

THREE

 

Rampuri Tan sat on the floor inside his small cell, his back to the door, a broad sheet of blank parchment spread on the flagstones before him. He held a brush in his left hand, but however long he had been sitting, had not yet dipped it into the saucer of black ink at his side.

“Enter,” the man said, beckoning with his free hand without turning toward the door.

Kaden crossed the threshold, then paused. The first few moments with a new umial could set the tone for the entire relationship. Most of the monks wanted to make an impression on their pupils early, and Kaden wasn’t eager to earn himself some grueling penance because of a careless misstep or lapse in judgment. Tan, however, seemed content to contemplate his blank page in silence, and so Kaden schooled himself to patience, attending to his strange new master.

It wasn’t hard to see where the novices had come up with the idea that the older monk had fought in the arena. Though well into his fifth decade, Tan was built like a boulder, thick in the shoulders and neck, and powerfully muscled. Furrowed scars, pale against his darker skin, ran through the stubble of his scalp, as though some clawed beast had raked at his head again and again, slicing the flesh right down to the skull. Whatever inflicted the wounds, they must have been excruciating. Kaden’s mind jumped back to the carcass of the goat, and he shivered.

“You found the animal that Heng sent you for,” the older monk began abruptly. It was not a question, and for a moment Kaden hesitated.

“Yes,” he said finally.

“Have you returned it to its flock?” “No.”

“Why not?”

“It had been killed. Savagely killed.”

Tan lowered the brush, rose fluidly to his feet, and turned to face his pupil for the first time. He was tall, almost as tall as Kaden, and suddenly it felt as though there was very little space in the small cell. His eyes, dark and hard as filed nails, fixed Kaden to the spot. Back in Annur, there were men from western Eridroa and the far south, animal handlers, who could bend bears and jaguars to their will, all with the power of their gaze. Kaden felt like one of those creatures now, and it was with an effort that he continued to meet the eyes of his new umial.

“Crag cat?” the older monk asked.

Kaden shook his head. “Something severed its neck—hacked straight through. Then consumed the brain.”

Tan considered him, then gestured to the brush, bowl, and parchment lying on the floor. “Paint it.”

Kaden took his seat with some relief. Whatever surprises were in store for him under Tan’s tutelage, at least the older monk shared some habits with Heng—if he heard about something unusual, he wanted an image. Well, that was easy enough. Kaden took two breaths, composed his thoughts, then summoned the saama’an. The sight filled his mind in all its detail—the sopping hair, the gobbets of hanging flesh, the empty bowl of the skull cast aside like broken crockery. He dipped the tip of the brush into the bowl and began to paint.

The work went quickly—his study with the monks had provided plenty of time to hone his craft—and when he was finished, he set down the brush. The painting on the parchment could have been the image of his mind reflected in a pool of still water.

Silence filled the room behind him, silence huge and heavy as stone. Kaden was tempted to turn around, but he had been instructed to sit and to paint, nothing else, and so, the painting finished, he sat.

“This is what you saw?” Tan asked at last.

Kaden nodded.

“And you had the presence of mind to remain for the saama’an.”

Satisfaction swelled in Kaden. Maybe training under Tan wouldn’t be so bad after all.

“Anything else?” the monk asked.

“Nothing else.”

The lash came down so hard and unexpectedly, Kaden bit into his tongue. Pain screamed across his back in a bright, bold line as his mouth filled with the coppery taste of blood. He started to reach back, to block the next blow, then forced the instinct down. Tan was his umial now, and it was the man’s prerogative to dole out penance and punishment as he saw fit. The reason for the sudden assault remained a mystery, but Kaden knew how to deal with a whipping.

Eight years among the Shin had taught him that pain was far too general a term for the multitude of sensations it purported to describe. He had learned the brutal ache of feet submerged too long in icy water and the furious stinging and itching of those same feet as they warmed. He had studied the deep reluctant soreness of muscles worked past exhaustion and the blossoms of agony that bloomed the next day as he kneaded the tender flesh under his thumbs. There was the quick, bright pain of a clean wound after the knife slipped and the low, drumming throb of the headache after fasting for a week. The Shin were great believers in pain. It was a reminder, they said, of how tightly we are bound to our own flesh. A reminder of failure.

“Finish the painting,” Tan said.

Kaden called the saama’an back to mind, then compared it with the parchment before him. He had transferred the details faithfully.

“It is finished,” he replied reluctantly.

The lash came down again, although this time he was prepared. His mind absorbed the shock as his body swayed slightly with the blow.

“Finish the painting,” Tan said again.

Kaden hesitated. Asking questions of one’s umial was usually a fast route to penance, but since he was being beaten already, a little more clarity couldn’t hurt.

“Is this a test?” he asked tentatively. The monks created all sorts of tests for their pupils, trials in which the novices and acolytes attempted to prove their understanding and competence.

The lash took him across the shoulders again. The first two blows had split open the robe, and Kaden could feel the switch tearing into his bare skin.

“This is what it is,” Tan replied. “Call it a test if you like, but the name is not the thing.”

Kaden suppressed a groan. Whatever eccentricities Tan might possess, he spoke in the same infuriating gnomic pronouncements as the rest of the Shin.

“I don’t remember anything else,” Kaden said. “That’s the entire saama’an.

“It’s not enough,” Tan said, but this time he withheld the lash.

“It’s the entire thing,” Kaden protested. “The goat, the head, the pools of blood, even a few stray hairs that were stuck on a rock. I copied everything there.”

Tan did hit him for that. Twice.

“Any fool can see what’s there,” the monk responded dryly. “A child looking at the world can tell you what is in front of him. You need to see what is not there. You need to look at what is not in front of you.”

Kaden struggled to make some kind of sense out of this. “Whatever killed the goat isn’t there,” he began slowly.

Another lash.

“Of course not. You scared it away. Or it left on its own. Either way, you wouldn’t expect to find a wild animal hunkered over its prey if it heard or scented a man approaching.”

“So I’m looking for something that should be there, but isn’t.”

“Think in your mind. Use your tongue when you have something to say.” Tan followed the words with three more sharp blows. The gashes wept blood. Kaden could feel it running down his back, hot, and wet, and sticky. He had had worse beatings before, but always for a major mistake, a serious penance, never in the course of a simple dialogue. It was becoming more difficult to ignore the lacerating pain, and he struggled to keep his mind on the subject at hand. Tan wasn’t going to stop whipping him out of mercy; that much was clear.

You need to see what is not there.

It was typical Shin nonsense, but like much of that nonsense, would probably turn out to be true.

Kaden scanned the saama’an. Every part of the goat was accounted for, even the intestines, which lay piled in sloppy blue-white ropes beneath the creature’s abdomen. The brain was gone, but he had painted the broken skull clearly, showed where it was scooped out. What else would he expect to see? He’d been tracking the goat, followed it to the canyon, and…

“Tracks,” he said, realization coming with the word. “Where are the tracks of whatever killed it?”

“That,” Tan said, “is a very good question. Were they present?”

Kaden tried to remember. “I’m not sure. They’re not in the saama’an… but I was focused on the goat.”

“It seems that those golden eyes of yours don’t see any better than anyone else’s.”

Kaden blinked. He’d never had a umial mention his eyes before—that was too close to mentioning his father or his birthright. The Shin were profoundly egalitarian. Novices were novices; acolytes were acolytes; and full brothers were all equal before the Blank God. Kaden’s eyes, however, were unique. Tan had called them “golden,” but in fact, the irises blazed. As a child, Kaden had stared at his father’s eyes—all Annurian Emperors shared them—marveling at the way the color seemed to shift and burn. Sometimes they raged bright as a fire caught in high wind; others, they smoldered with a dark, red heat. His sister, Adare, had the eyes, too, though hers seemed to spark and snap like a blaze of green twigs. As the oldest of the Emperor’s children, Adare rarely focused her bright gaze on her younger brothers, and when she did, it was usually in a flash of irritation. According to the family, the burning eyes came from Intarra herself, the Lady of Light, who had taken human form centuries or millennia earlier—no one seemed quite sure—to seduce one of Kaden’s forebears. Those eyes marked him as the true heir to the Unhewn Throne, to Annur itself, an empire that sprawled across two continents.

The Shin, of course, had no more interest in empires than they did in Intarra. The Lady of Light was one of the old gods, older than Meshkent and Maat, older even than Ananshael, Lord of Bones. Upon her depended the arc of the sun in the sky, the heat of the day, the numinous glow of the moon. And yet, according to the monks, she was a child, an infant playing with fire in the vast mansion of emptiness, the unending and eternal void that was home to the Blank God. One day Kaden would return to Annur to claim his place on the Unhewn Throne, but while he lived at Ashk’lan, he was just another monk, expected to work hard and obey. The eyes certainly weren’t saving him from Tan’s brutal interrogation.

“Maybe the tracks were there,” Kaden concluded weakly. “I can’t be sure.”

For a while Tan said nothing, and Kaden wondered if the beating was about to resume.

“The monks have been too easy on you,” Tan concluded finally, voice level but hard. “I will not make that mistake.”

Only later, as Kaden lay awake in his bunk, breathing shallowly to try to ease the pain of his inflamed back, did he realize what his new umial had said: “the monks.” As though Rampuri Tan were not one of them.

 

FOUR

 

Even with the salt-sharp breeze gusting in off the sea, the bodies stank. Adaman Fane’s Wing had found the ship on a routine patrol two days earlier, sails rent and luffing, dried blood on the rails, the crew cut to pieces and left to rot on the decks. By the time the cadets arrived, the searing springtime sun had started its work, bloating bellies and pulling skin tight over knuckles and skulls. Flies crawled in and out of dead sailors’ ears, foraged between slack lips, and paused to rub their mandibles over desiccated eyeballs.

“Any theories?” Ha Lin asked, nudging the nearest body with her toe. Valyn shrugged. “I think we can rule out a cavalry charge.”

“Very helpful,” she shot back, lips pursed, almond eyes skeptically narrowed.

“Whoever did this, they were good. Take a look here.”

He squatted to peel back the crusted cloth from a nasty stab puncture just below the fourth rib. Lin knelt beside him, licked her little finger, then slid it into the wound up to the second knuckle.

A stranger meeting Ha Lin on the street might mistake her for a carefree merchant’s daughter on the cusp of womanhood: buoyant and blithe, brown skin tanned from long hours in the sun, glossy black hair pulled back from her forehead and gathered in a leather thong. She had a soldier’s eyes, though. For the past eight years, she’d been through the same training as Valyn, the same training as all the cadets on the deck of the doomed vessel, and the Kettral had long ago hardened her to the sight of death.

Still, Valyn couldn’t help but see her for the attractive young woman she was. As a rule, the soldiers avoided romantic entanglements on the Islands. Whores of both sexes were cheap over on Hook, and no one wanted a lover’s quarrel between men and women trained to kill in dozens of ways. Nonetheless, Valyn sometimes found his eyes straying from the exercise at hand to Ha Lin, to the quirk of her lip, the shape of her figure beneath her combat blacks. He tried to hide his glances—they were embarrassing and unprofessional—but he thought, from the wry grin that sometimes flickered across her face, that she had caught him looking on more than one occasion.

She didn’t seem to mind. Sometimes she even looked back with that bold, disarming stare of hers. It was easy to wonder what might have evolved between them if they’d grown up somewhere different, somewhere that training didn’t subsume an entire life. Of course, “somewhere different” for Valyn hui’Malkeenian meant the Dawn Palace, which had its own rules and taboos; as a member of the imperial family, he couldn’t have loved her any more than he could as a soldier.

Forget it, he told himself angrily. He was there to focus on the exercise, not to spend the morning daydreaming about other lives.

“Professional,” Lin said appreciatively, evidently unaware that his mind had drifted. She pulled her finger out and wiped the crusted gore on her blacks. “Deep enough to burst the kidney, but not so deep as to get the blade stuck.”

Valyn nodded. “There are plenty more like that, more than you’d expect from amateurs.”

He considered the purpling contusion a moment longer, then straightened up and stared out over the slapping chop of the Iron Sea. After all the blood, it felt good to look at the unblemished blue for a minute, the wide expanse of the meridian sky.

“Enough lounging!” Adaman Fane bellowed, cuffing Valyn across the back of the head as he strode the length of the deck, stepping over the sprawled bodies as though they were downed spars or coils of rope. “Get your asses aft!” The massive bald trainer had been with the Kettral better than twenty years and still swam across the sound to Hook and back every morning before dawn. He had little patience for cadets standing around during one of his exercises.

Valyn joined the rest. He knew them all, of course; the Kettral were as small a fighting force as they were elite—the enormous birds that they used to drop in behind enemy lines couldn’t carry more than five or six soldiers at a time. The Empire relied on the Kettral when a mission had to be executed quickly and quietly—for everything else, the Annurian legions could usually get the job done or the navy, or the marines.

Valyn’s training group numbered twenty-six, seven of whom had flown out to the abandoned ship with Fane for the morning’s exercise. They were a strange crew: Annick Frencha, slim as a boy, snow-pale, and silent as stone; Balendin with his cruel grin and the falcon perched on his shoulder; Talal, tall, serious, bright eyes set in a face dark as coal; Gwenna Sharpe, impossibly reckless and incurably hot-tempered; Sami Yurl, the arrogant blond son of one of the empire’s most powerful atreps, bronze-skinned as a god and viscious as a viper with his blades. They didn’t have much in common aside from the fact that someone in command believed that one day they could be very, very good at killing people. Provided nothing killed them first.

All the training, all the lessons, the eight years of language study, demolitions work, navigational practice, weapons sparring, the sleepless nights on watch, the never-ending physical abuse, abuse intended to harden both the body and the mind, all of it aimed at one goal: Hull’s Trial. Valyn remembered his first day on the Islands as though it had been branded on his mind. The new recruits had stepped off the ship straight into a barrage of curses and insults, into the fierce, angry faces of the veterans who called this distant archipelago their home, who seemed to resent any incursion, even by those eager to follow in their footsteps. Before he’d taken two steps, someone cuffed him across the cheek, then drove his face into the wet, salty sand until he could barely breathe.

“Get this in your heads,” someone—one of the commanders?— hollered. “Just because some incompetent bureaucrat has seen fit to ship you out here to our precious Qirin Islands, it does notmean you will ever become Kettral. Some of you will be begging for mercy before the week is out. Others we will break in the course of training. Many of you will die, falling from birds, drowned in the spring storms, sobbing pathetically to yourselves as you submit to fleshrot in some miserable Hannan backwater. And that’s the easy part! That’s the fucking fun part. Those of you lucky or stubborn enough to live through the training will still need to face Hull’s Trial.”

Hull’s Trial. Despite eight years of whispered speculation, neither Valyn nor the other cadets knew what it was any more than they had when they first arrived on Qarsh. It always seemed so distant, invisible as a ship beyond the cusp of the horizon. No one forgot it, but it was possible to ignore it for a while; after all, no one reached Hull’s Trial if he didn’t survive the years of training leading up to it. And yet, after all those years, it had come at last, like a debt long due. In a little over a month, Valyn and the others would earn the rank of full Kettral or they would die.

“Maybe we can start this morning’s parade of incompetence,” Fane began, tugging Valyn’s attention back to the present, “with Ha Lin’s assessment.” He gestured with a huge hand for her to begin. It was a standard exercise. The Kettral were always dragging cadets to fresh battlefields, the examination of which would both harden them to the sight of death and hone their tactical understanding.

“It was a night attack,” Lin replied, voice crisp and confident. “Otherwise, the sailors on deck would have seen their assailants. The raiding party came from starboard—you can see the gouges left by the grapples on the rails. When the—”

“Sweet ’Shael on a stick,” Fane interrupted, raising a hand to silence her. “A first-year could tell me all this. Will someone please explain something that’s not obscenely obvious?” He cast about, eyes finally fixing on Valyn. “How about His Most Radiant Highness?”

Valyn hated the title. It wasn’t even accurate, for one thing—despite the fact that his father was Emperor, he was never going to sit the Unhewn Throne—and for another, his high birth was irrelevant. There were no ranks on the Islands, no special perquisites or prerogatives. If anything, Valyn probably worked a little harder than most. Still, he’d learned long ago that complaining just landed you deeper in the shit, and he did not, at the moment, need to spend more time in the shit, so he took a deep breath and began.

“The crew barely even knew they were in trouble—”

Before he could finish the sentence, Fane cut him off with a snort and a curt chop of his hand.

“I give you ten minutes to look over this ’Kent-kissing goat fuck, and your only conclusion is that it was a surprise attack? What have you been doing? Pilfering rings and going through pockets?”

“I was just starting—”

“And now you’re finished. How about you, Yurl?” Fane asked, pointing to the tall blond youth. “Maybe you can find some way to contribute to His Most Radiant Highness’s exhaustive analysis.”

“There’s just so much to say,” Sami Yurl began, shooting Valyn a satisfied smirk.

“That spit-licking son of a whore,” Lin hissed, low enough that only Valyn could hear.

Though all the cadets endured the same privations and aimed at the same goal, there were rifts in the group. Most of the young soldiers enlisted out of a hybrid desire to defend the empire, see the world, and fly those enormous birds to which only the Kettral had access. For a peasant’s son from the plains of Sia, the Kettral offered opportunities too fantastic to be believed. Others, however, came to the Islands for other reasons: the chance to fight, to inflict pain, to take life—these drew some as rotting flesh drew vultures. Despite Sami Yurl’s smooth good looks, he was a brutal and nasty fighter. Unlike most of the other cadets, he seemed never to have put his past behind him, striding around the Islands as though expecting everyone to bow and scrape. It was tempting to dismiss him as the pampered, puffed-up son of a lord, an aristocratic fool who had lucked into the cadets through coin or family connections. The truth was more galling: Yurl was an effective, dangerous fighter, better with his blades than some full-rank Kettral. He’d beaten Valyn bloody dozens of times over the years, and if there was one thing he enjoyed more than winning, it was humiliating those he had defeated.

“The attack,” Yurl continued, “happened three days ago, judging by the air temperature, the number of flies, and the rot on the bodies. As Lin said”—he shot her a sly glance—“it was a night assault; otherwise, more of the crew would have been armed. When the pirates hit—”

“Pirates?” the trainer asked sharply.

Yurl shrugged and turned to the nearest corpse, casually kicking the head aside to reveal a gash running from clavicle to chest. “Wounds are consistent with the weaponry that kind of trash tends to favor. The hold is ransacked. They hit the boat and took the goods. Bang the whore and get out the door—pretty standard.”

Balendin chuckled at the crack. Lin bristled, and Valyn put a calming hand on her arm.

“Lucky for them,” Yurl added, “there weren’t any professionals on board.” His tone suggested that if he had been manning the deck, the attackers would have encountered a very different reception.

Valyn wasn’t so sure.

“Pirates didn’t do this.”

Fane cocked a bushy eyebrow. “The Light of the Empire speaks again! You wouldn’t want to rest on your laurels after so astutely identifying the ‘surprise attack.’ Please, enlighten us.”

Valyn ignored the goading. Kettral trainers could crawl under one’s skin quicker than a sandfly. It was one of the reasons they made good trainers. A cadet who couldn’t keep his cool wasn’t likely to make much of a soldier when the arrows started flying, and Fane was nothing if not adept at making people lose their cool.

“This crew wasn’t the usual mix of sailors with a few mercenary marines to guard the cargo,” Valyn began. “These men were professionals.”

Yurl smirked. “Professionals. Right. Which explains why they’re scattered around the deck like chum.”

“You’ve had a chance to run your mouth, Yurl,” Fane said. “Now, shut it, and see if the golden boy over here can manage to do something other than embarrass himself.”

Valyn suppressed a smile and nodded to the trainer before continuing. “The crew looks pretty standard. A dozen men—the kind you’d find running a sloop like this anywhere from Anthera to the Waist. But only two of the bunks have been used. That means ten men on the deck at all times. They were ready for an attack.” He waited for that to sink in.

“And their weapons. They don’t look like much.” He lifted a standard deckblade from the hand of the nearest corpse and held it up to the light. “But this is Liran steel. What kind of merchant rig runs ten on the deck, every man carrying Liran steel?”

“I’m sure,” Fane drawled, “that you’re planning to make a point sometime before the sun sets.” The man sounded bored, but Valyn could see the glint in his eye. He was onto something.

“All I’m saying is that if this lot were professionals, then the ones who boarded the ship and cut them down weren’t your garden-variety pirates.” “Well, well,” the trainer replied, looking around the cluster of cadets to see that everyone had followed the argument. “Even a blind horse finds the paddock once in a while.”

By Eyrie standards, the backhand remark counted as high praise. Valyn nodded, hiding his satisfaction. Sami Yurl’s lips tightened into a scowl. “Ten minutes on deck,” Fane continued, glaring, “and only the imperial mascot, here, has been able to tell me a single worthwhile thing about this ’Kent-kissing wreck. I didn’t rope two birds into flying you out here just so you could spend the morning sticking your thumbs up one another’s asses.

Go over it again. Use your eyes. Find me something worth knowing.” Eight years earlier, the admonition would have shamed Valyn to his core. Such tongue-lashings, however, were standard fare on the Islands. He nodded crisply to Fane, then turned to Lin.

“Split up?” he asked. “You stay topside, I’ll check belowdecks again?”

“Whatever you say, O Divine Light of the Empire,” she responded with a smirk.

“Let me remind you,” Valyn said, eyes narrowing, “that you’re not as big as Fane.”

She put a cupped hand to her ear. “What was that? It sounded like… was it a threat?”

And you’re just a girl.”

It was a meaningless crack on the Qirins, where more than a third of the soldiers were women. Other imperial forces would have scoffed at the idea of a mixed-gender fighting unit, but the Kettral handled unusual situations, situations in which stealth, impersonation, deception, and surprise were as important as brute strength and speed. Still, if Lin was going to needle him about his parentage, Valyn intended to give as good as he got.

“I wouldn’t want to have to turn you over my knee and paddle you,” he added, wagging a finger at her.

“You know that Shaleel taught us how to crush testicles, right?” Lin replied. “It’s pretty easy, actually, sort of like cracking a walnut.” She demonstrated with one hand, a quick, twisting gesture that made Valyn wince.

“Why don’t you stay up here,” he said, taking a good step backwards, “and I’ll make sure we didn’t miss anything in the hold.”

Lin squinted appraisingly. “It might be more like a chestnut, now that I think of it.…”

Valyn tossed back the hatch and dropped below before she could finish the sentence.

The ship’s hold was low and dim. A few bars of sunlight lanced through the unchinked cracks in the decking above, but most of the space lay in deep, thick shadow. In a fight like this, there usually wasn’t much to see belowdecks, and only a few of the other cadets had already been down there. Still, it paid to look places other people didn’t.

Valyn waited for his eyes to adjust, then moved ahead, picking his way cautiously around stray barrels and bales as the vessel rocked gently beneath him, waves lapping at the hull. Whoever hit the ship had made off with most of the cargo, if there had been any cargo to begin with. According to the ink seals, the barrels that remained carried wine from Sia, although most of that trade tended to follow the shorter, overland route to the capital. A few crates were still lashed against the bulkhead, and Valyn pried one open with his belt knife: bales of cotton, also from Sia. It was good cargo, but not something professionals would usually go after. He was just starting to crack open the next crate when what sounded like a quiet moan caught his ear.

Without thinking, he drew one of the two standard short blades strapped across his back.

The sound was coming from the bow of the ship, all the way up by the foremost scuppers. Fane’s Wing should have checked the vessel over already, should have made sure that everyone was either dead or tied up before Valyn and the rest of the cadets came anywhere close. Fane, however, was one of the Eyrie’s more impulsive trainers, more interested in swinging a blade than skulking around belowdecks, checking pulses. He would have given the hold a glance, to be sure—but at a glance, a gravely wounded man could easily pass for dead.

Briefly Valyn considered calling someone else. If there were a sailor still alive, Fane would want to know immediately. On the other hand, he wasn’t certain just what he’d heard, and he didn’t relish the idea of hollering for the whole group only to find some untended livestock milling around in the bow. After a quick glance over his shoulder, Valyn glided silently ahead, belt knife held down by his waist, short blade in a tight guard before him—standard position for close-quarters fighting.

The man was tucked all the way forward against the curve of the keel itself, slumped in a puddle of his own blood. For a moment Valyn thought he was dead, that the sound had been the groaning of hawser against capstan, or the protestation of wood warping beneath the sun. Then the sailor opened his eyes.

They shone in the meager light, baffled and tormented by pain.

Valyn took half a step forward, then stopped. Assume nothing. That was the entire first chapter of Hendran’s Tactics, a tome that virtually every Kettral had committed to memory. The man looked near death, but Valyn held back.

“Can you hear me?” he asked quietly. “How badly are you wounded?”

The sailor’s eyes rolled in his head as though searching for the source of the sound before coming to rest, finally, on Valyn.

“You… ,” he groaned, the word gravelly and weak.

Valyn stared. He had never seen the man before, certainly not in his years on the Islands, but recognition filled that feverish gaze and pinned him to the spot.

“You’re delirious,” he said carefully, edging closer. Unless the man was a professional masker, he wasn’t faking. “Where are you wounded?”

“You have the eyes,” the sailor responded weakly.

Valyn froze. Usually when people referred to “the eyes,” they were talking about his father, Sanlitun, or his brother, Kaden, both of whom had been blessed with the famous burning gaze, flaming irises that marked them as the heirs to Intarra herself, as the rightful Emperors of Annur. Even his older sister, Adare, had that gaze—although as a woman, she would never sit the Unhewn Throne. Growing up, Valyn had been fiercely jealous of those eyes, had, in fact, almost blinded himself once with a burning twig while trying to light his own eyes ablaze. The truth was, though, that Valyn’s stare was no less unsettling: black pupils set in irises brown as char. Kaden’s eyes might be fire, Ha Lin said, but Valyn’s were the remains after the fire had guttered out.

“We came… for you,” the sailor insisted.

Valyn felt suddenly dizzy, disoriented, and the ship seemed to roll more treacherously with the swells.

“Why?” he asked. “Who is ‘we’?”

“Aedolians,” the man managed. “The Emperor sent us.”

The Aedolian Guard. That explained both the professionalism and the Liran steel. The personal bodyguards of the Emperor were both well trained and well supplied; aside from the Kettral, they were the most fabled troops in the empire, iron-willed men whose loyalty to the Annurian throne was the stuff of legend. The founder of their order, Jarl Genner, had decreed that they take no wives, father no children, and own no property, all to ensure their unstinting allegiance to the Emperor and to the Guard.

None of which explained their presence here, on a clipper three full weeks’ sail from the capital, all of them dying or already dead. Or who could board such a ship and kill these men, some of the finest troops in the world. Valyn glanced back over his shoulder into the murky gloom of the hold, but whoever had wreaked the havoc appeared to be long gone.

The soldier was panting at the effort and the pain of speech, but he clenched his jaw and continued. “A plot. There is a plot. We were to… take you… away… protect you.”

Valyn tried to make sense of the claim. There were plenty of nefarious political currents in Annur, but the Kettral had chosen the Qirin Islands as their training ground and home because they were hundreds of leagues from anywhere. Besides, the Qirins were populated by the Kettral. The Aedolian Guard was storied, but the Kettral were legend. Anyone who planned to attack the Islands would have to be mad.

“Wait here,” Valyn began, although where the man would go he had no idea. “I have to tell someone. Fane. Eyrie command.”

No,” the Aedolian managed, yanking a bloody hand from his jerkin and reaching toward Valyn, his voice surprisingly powerful. “Someone here… maybe someone important… is part of it.…”

The words landed like a slap. “Who?” Valyn demanded. “Who’s a part of it?”

The soldier shook his head wearily. “Don’t know…”

His head dropped to the side. Bright crimson blood hemorrhaged from somewhere beneath the jerkin, splattering Valyn and the surrounding deck in fading spurts. An arterial wound, Valyn realized… only, an arterial wound killed in minutes, not days. The man should have bled out onto the deck by the time his attackers slipped back over the gunwales. He stepped forward to part the soldier’s jerkin carefully and stared at the long gash, then turned his attention to the gore-drenched hand that had dropped limp into the Aedolian’s lap.

“There’s no possible way… ,” he muttered to himself. And yet, the evidence was clear.

The man had been holding his own artery, had forced his fingers in through the sagging rent in his flesh, found the slippery tube, and clamped it shut. It was possible—Ellen Finch had gone over the technique in medical training—but even Finch acknowledged that you’d be lucky to last a day in that state. The Aedolian had gone close to three, waiting for someone, praying to whatever god he had trusted in, a god who had fucked him over well and for good.

Valyn touched his fingers to the man’s neck. The pulse fluttered, faltered, then failed. He reached out to shut the eyes when Fane’s earsplitting roar yanked him upright.

“Cadets on deck! Bird incoming!”

Just as Valyn shoved open the hatch, an ear-rending screech split the morning air. He burned to tell someone what he’d just heard, but the soldier’s warning echoed in his ears: Someone here is part of it. At the moment, he wasn’t even sure he could have told anyone: all eyes were turned to the sky to see a kettral soar overhead, dark wings blotting the sun.

Even after eight years on the Islands, eight years learning to fly on, fight from, load up, and drop off of the massive birds, Valyn still wasn’t fully at ease with them. If the annals were correct, the species was older than men, older even than the Csestriim and the Nevariim, a throwback to the days when gods and monsters strode the earth. Though the Kettral had found them, had ostensibly tamed them, nothing in the dark, liquid eyes of the birds had ever looked tame to Valyn, and now, standing on the open deck as the great creature winged overhead, he thought he understood the terror of a mouse caught in the middle of a freshly mown field as the falcon takes to the air.

“Looks like the Flea’s bird,” Fane said, shading his eyes with a hand. “Although what he’s doing all the way out here I’ve got no ’Kent-kissing idea.”

Normally Valyn would have been intrigued. Although the Flea took his turn training cadets, he was one of the most deadly soldiers in the Eyrie’s very deadly collection, and spent most of his time flying missions in the northeast, into the savage Blood Cities, or against the Urghul, or to the south, where the jungle tribes constantly pressed up through the Waist. His arrival in the middle of a run-of-the-mill exercise was unusual, if not unprecedented. Such surprises helped to liven up the training, although, after Valyn’s encounter with the Aedolian, the black bird struck him as an inauspicious portent, and he looked over to take new stock of the cadets on deck. If the man hadn’t been lying, dark forces were in play on the Islands, and if Valyn had learned one thing with the Kettral, it was that surpises were safe only if you were on the delivering end.

Without warning, the bird tucked its wings, all seventy feet of them, tight against its body and, like a spear falling from the heavens, dropped toward the ship. Valyn and the rest of the cadets stared. All the Kettral could make flying mounts and dismounts; the creatures weren’t much good if you couldn’t get on and off them. But this? He’d never seen anyone come in so fast.

“There’s no way… ,” Lin breathed beside him, shaking her head in horror. “There’s just no—”

The bird was upon them in a rush of wind and a maelstrom of kickedup debris that almost knocked Valyn from his feet. Even as he shielded his eyes, he caught a glimpse of the creature’s talons reaching for the deck, a figure in Kettral blacks slipping loose from his harnesses, dropping to the boards, rolling smoothly to his feet. Before the wash of wind had subsided, the bird was gone, winging low over the waves to the north, and the Flea was there.

He didn’t look like much of a soldier. Where Adaman Fane was tall and built like a bull, the Flea was short and weathered, his tar-dark skin pockmarked from some childhood disease, a fuzz of gray hair hazing his head like smoke. The drop was a reminder, though, of what the man and his Wing were capable of. No one else made drops like that, not the other cadets, not the trainers, not Adaman Fane—and onto a moving ship! If Valyn had tried the same entry over water, he would have been lucky to walk away without shattering all his ribs. Over a pitching deck… forget it. He’d always thought the other Kettral were stretching the truth just a bit when they claimed that the Flea had flown more than a thousand successful missions, but that…

“That was uncharacteristically flamboyant,” Fane said with a raised eyebrow.

The Flea grimaced. “Sorry. Command sent me.”

“And in a ’Kent-kissing hurry.”

The smaller man nodded. He glanced over the assembled cadets, seemed to pause on Valyn, then took in the rest of the group before returning his attention to Fane. “You and your Wing are to be airborne as soon as possible. Yesterday, if you can manage it. You’ll follow me north. Sendra’s Wing’s already on the way.”

“Three wings?” Fane asked, grinning. “Sounds exciting. Where we headed?”

“Annur,” the Flea responded. He didn’t seem to share Fane’s enthusiasm. “The Emperor is dead.”

 

FIVE

 

The Emperor is dead.

The words lodged in Valyn’s brain like a bone and even now, hours after the Flea had landed in a flurry of wind and wings, they gouged at him mercilessly. It seemed impossible, like hearing that the ocean had dried up, or the earth had split in two. Sanlitun’s death was a tragedy for the empire, of course—he had provided decades of steady, measured rule—but during most of the flight back to the Qirins, all Valyn could think about were the tiny, seemingly inconsequential memories: his father holding the bridle as his son learned to ride his first horse, his father winking during a tedious state dinner when he thought no one else was looking, his father sparring with his sons left-handed to give them the passing illusion of success. There would be a solemn ceremony on the Qirins, as elsewhere, to mourn the passing of the Emperor, but Valyn had no one else with whom to mourn the passing of the man.

He wasn’t even sure how his father had died. “Some sort of treachery,” was all the Flea could, or would, tell him. It was the standard Kettral horseshit: the trainers insisted that their charges memorize everything about the empire from the price of wheat in Channary to the length of the Chief Priest’s cock, but when it came to ongoing operations—then you couldn’t buy a straight answer. Every now and again, one of the veterans would toss the cadets a scrap—a name, a location, a grisly detail—just enough to whet the appetite without satisfying it. “Mission security,” the Eyrie called it, although what security you needed on a ’Kent-kissing island with a captive population Valyn had no idea. He’d more or less made his peace with the policy, but this was his own father’s death, and his ignorance tore at him like a cruel thorn lodged beneath the skin. Did treachery mean poison? A knife in the back? An “accident” in the Dawn Palace? It seemed like being Sanlitun’s son should count for something, but on the Islands, Valyn was not the son of the Emperor; he was a cadet, like the rest of the cadets. He learned what they learned and no more. He had thought, after the Flea first delivered his news, that the Wing may have come to sweep him up, to deliver him back to Annur in preparation for the funeral. Before he could even ask the question, however, Adaman Fane’s voice cut through his confusion and horror.

“And you, O Light of the Empire,” the trainer had growled, poking Valyn roughly in the shoulder, “don’t think this means you’ll be getting some sort of holiday. People die all the time. Best to get that through your obdurate skull. If you’re going to have even a pathetic shot at surviving Hull’s Trial, I’d recommend giving your father an hour of thought tonight and then getting on with the training.”

And so, as the Flea, Fane, and a dozen other Kettral winged their way northwest, over the slapping chop toward Annur, Valyn found himself, along with a handful of his fellow cadets, strapped into the talons of a different bird, this one flying south, back toward the Islands. It was nearly impossible to talk with the wind in his face and the great wingbeats of the creature buffeting him from above, and Valyn was grateful for the semblance of solitude. The Flea had come and gone so quickly, delivered his words with so little preamble, that Valyn still didn’t feel as though the import of those words had really hit home.

The Emperor is dead.

He tested them again, as though he could feel their veracity in his throat, taste it on his tongue. The Aedolian Guard should have kept his father safe, but the Guard couldn’t be everywhere, couldn’t defend against every threat.

The ablest swordsman, Hendran wrote, the consummate tactician, the peerless general: All seem invulnerable until luck turns against them. Make no mistake—place a man in death’s way enough times, and his luck will turn.

Of course, Sanlitun hadn’t died of bad fucking luck. The Flea had said “treachery,” which meant that someone, probably a group of people, had conspired to betray and murder the Emperor. Which brought Valyn back to the Aedolian he had found in the ship’s hold only hours earlier. It didn’t take a spymaster or a military genius to see that the threat against Valyn’s life was tied to the murder of the Emperor himself. In fact, it looked very much as though a quiet coup was in process, a systematic elimination of the entire Malkeenian line. Sanlitun must have discovered it before his death, must have dispatched the ship full of Aedolians to rescue and protect his son, but the ship had come to grief, and Sanlitun’s knowledge had failed to save him. Someone wanted to eliminate the Malkeenian line, and terrifyingly, they were managing it. Someone would be coming for Valyn, and not just him, but for Kaden, too. Even Adare might be in danger— although as a woman, she couldn’t sit the Unhewn Throne. That simple fact, so galling to her as a child, may have saved her life. He hoped.

Holy Hull, Valyn thought grimly. As frightening as he found the idea of hidden assassins hunting him over the Qirin Islands, Kaden’s situation was far worse. Kaden, not Valyn, had the golden eyes. Kaden, not Valyn, was heir to the throne, was Emperor now. And Kaden, not Valyn, was alone in some distant monastery, untrained, unguarded, and unwarned.

Overhead, strapped in to the kettral’s back with an elaborate harness, Laith, the flier, banked the bird into a steep turn. Valyn looked over to see Gwenna watching him from her perch on the other talon, red hair swept around her head like flame. Of all the cadets, Gwenna was maybe the least plausible. She looked like a brewer’s daughter rather than an elite soldier—all freckles and pale skin given to sunburn, curly hair, and womanly curves that her standard-issue blacks did nothing to hide. She looked like a brewer’s daughter, but she had just about the worst temper on the Islands.

Her lips were turned down in something that was either a scowl or a frown of commiseration—it was hard to tell with her. Could she be part of it? Valyn wondered. It seemed ludicrous to suppose a high-level conspiracy bent at overthrowing the most powerful family in the world would enlist a cadet who hadn’t even passed the Trial. Still, there was an intensity in Gwenna’s green eyes that was hard to comprehend. Valyn had no idea how long she had been watching him, but when he looked over she pointed to the buckle linking his harness to the bird’s thick, scaly leg. He glanced down and discovered to his alarm that he hadn’t clinched the safety properly. If the bird stooped hard, he could have been ripped right off the talons, tossed a thousand paces to his death on the waves below.

You ’Kent-kissing idiot, he muttered to himself, yanking the leather tight, then nodding curtly to Gwenna. No one’s going to need to kill you if you take care of it for them. With an effort, he forced his apprehensions down. Whatever plots were afoot, he couldn’t foil them while dangling from his harness. There was nothing to do while strapped in to the bird but rest, and he tried to settle back into the rigging, to let his weary muscles slacken for a while, to find some of the calm he usually felt while soaring over the waves.

At sea level, it would be hot and humid already, the kind of day that plastered your shirt to your back and slicked your sword grip with sweat, but Laith was holding the bird a thousand paces up, where the sun warmed without scorching while the kettral’s enormous wingspan provided plenty of shade for Valyn, Gwenna, and the two other cadets strapped in and balancing on the huge talons. He tried closing his eyes, but it was no good. Visions of his father’s face filled his mind. Or was it Kaden’s? All he could see were those golden irises, flaming high, then quenched as blood rose in the sockets.

He shook his head to clear away the visions, opened his eyes, then checked over his belt knife, short blades, and buckle once more, running through the standard flight list over and over. Gwenna had continued watching him, he realized, and he stilled his hands, redirecting his attention to the land and sea inching by below.

He could see most of the Qirins by now, the slender chain stretching across the waves like a necklace of islands. Qarsh, the largest of the group, lay just a little to the south, and Valyn could see the sandy beaches, dense stands of mangroves, dusty limestone bluffs, and the various buildings of Eyrie command—barracks, mess hall, training arenas, storehouses—as clearly as if they were lines inked on a map. A few ships, a merchant ketch and a couple of sloops by the look of them, lolled at anchor in the harbor, and almost directly beneath him, a sleek-hulled cutter sliced through the surf, making for the port.

Qarsh was his home—not just the long, low barracks that he’d shared with twenty-five other cadets for the past eight years or the mess hall where he took his meals, exhausted and numb after a long day of training, but the whole island, from the rocky headlands to the winding waterways between the mangroves. It was familiar, even comforting, in a way the Dawn Palace had never been. The Islands were his. Until now.

After the Aedolian’s warning and the death of his father, the small archipelago looked different somehow, strange, treacherous, gravid with menace. One of the ships in the harbor might carry the men who had boarded the Aedolian vessel and slaughtered the crew. Someone in the barracks or mess hall, someone he had passed a thousand times in the training ring or labored beside in the storeroom, could be plotting to kill him. Those winding rocky trails offered too much seclusion, too many twists and turns where a man could disappear without anyone the wiser, and Kettral training afforded a thousand opportunities for “accidents”—botched drops, rigged munitions, sharp bits of steel just about everywhere you looked. In the space of a single morning, his home had become a trap.

The bird skimmed above the wide landing field just to the west of the harbor, and Valyn leapt from the talons. A small cluster of his peers waited at the edge of the field, some awkwardly fingering their belt knives, some openly studying him as he approached. Word traveled fast among the Kettral.

Gent Herren stepped forward first, shaking his massive head. “Hard luck,” he growled, extending a hand like a mallet. The huge cadet stood at least a foot taller than Valyn and had shoulders to match. He looked like a bear—curly brown hair on his arms and chest hiding the pale skin beneath—and generally seemed about as tame as one, although now his manner was subdued. “Your father ran a tight ship,” he went on, as though unsure quite what to say.

“A loss for the empire,” Talal added. Talal was a leach, and like all leaches, he kept mostly to himself. Still, he and Valyn had cooperated on a few training exercises over the years, and Valyn had developed a wary trust for him, despite his strange and tainted powers. In addition to his blacks, Talal wore an array of glittering bracelets, bands, and rings, and his ears were pierced with hoops and studs. On another man, such adornment would have been a mark of vanity and frivolity; on Talal, the glints and glimmers of metal were as lighthearted as the flash of an assassin’s blade. “Do they have any idea what happened?” he asked quietly.

“No,” Valyn replied. “I don’t know. Treachery. That was all they told me.”

Gent ground his knuckles into a meaty palm. “Fane and the Flea will find the ’Kent-kissing bastards. They’ll find ’em and sort ’em right out.”

Valyn nodded halfheartedly. It was a tempting vision—Wings of Kettral dragging the conspirators out into the light, beating the truth from them, and then executing them in the middle of the Annurian Godsway. It wouldn’t bring his father back, but justice carried its own cold satisfaction, and Valyn would breathe easier once the killers were hanged. Provided it proves that simple, he thought to himself grimly. A hard, realistic voice inside himself told him it would not.

“You’d better keep a closer watch on your ’Kent-kissing buckles,” Gwenna said, shouldering into the conversation. Her green eyes flashed with rage, and she planted a finger right in the middle of Valyn’s chest, driving her nail into his sternum. “You almost ended up in the drink back there.”

“I know,” Valyn replied, refusing to step back.

“He just found out his father was murdered,” Gent protested.

“Oh, the poor thing,” Gwenna snapped back. “Maybe we should keep him on bed rest and spoon-feed him warm milk for a week.”

“Gwenna,” Talal began, holding out a hand to placate her, “there’s no need—”

“There’s every fucking need,” she replied acidly. “He makes a mistake because his head’s in the clouds, he could get himself killed. He could get someone else killed.”

“Give it a rest, Gwenna,” Gent rumbled, his voice menacing as a distant avalanche.

She ignored both the other cadets and fixed her green eyes on Valyn. “I catch you doing something like that again, I’m reporting it. I’ll report it straight to Rallen. You understand?”

Valyn met her gaze squarely. “I appreciate the fact that you noticed the buckle. Could have saved my life. But I left my mother eight years ago when I set sail for the Islands, and I don’t need you stepping in to play the role.”

She pursed her lips as though she intended to argue the point. He took half a step backwards, shifting his weight and freeing his hand from his belt. The Kettral were a prickly bunch, and arguments, even small arguments, often came to blows. He had no idea why Gwenna was so mad, but he’d seen her take a swing at other cadets before, and he wasn’t about to be caught wrong-footed. Back on the mainland, there were plenty of fools who would have scoffed at the threat of a woman’s punch—but back on the mainland, the women weren’t trained to crush your trachea or gouge out an eye. After a tense moment, however, Gwenna shook her head, snarled something about “fucking incompetence,” and stalked off toward the barracks.

Silence reigned until Gent broke in, voice like a sack of rocks rolling downhill. “I think she’s sweet on you.”

Valyn coughed out a laugh. “I’ll tell you one thing. If she’s assigned to my Wing after the Trial, you both have permission to strangle me in my sleep.”

“Might be better to strangle her,” Ha Lin chimed in. She had landed on the next bird and must have joined them just as Gwenna made her dramatic exit. “That’s the usual idea, you know, Val. Enemy dead. You alive. That sort of thing? Maybe you haven’t been following along too closely the last few years.”

“Gwenna’s not the enemy,” Talal demurred.

“Oh no,” Lin said, “she’s a fucking peach.”

Valyn found himself grinning. “I’m fine as long as she doesn’t try to shove one of her flickwicks somewhere uncomfortable and light the fuse.”

“A man wants to die with his limbs and his dignity intact,” Gent agreed. “Stabbed. Poisoned. Drowned. Those are fine…” He trailed off, realizing what he was saying. “I’m sorry, Val. I’m a horse’s ass.…”

Valyn waved the apology aside. “Don’t worry. You don’t have to stop talking shop because my father’s dead.”

“What about your brother?” Talal asked. “Is he safe?”

Valyn looked over sharply at the leach. It was a sensible question, given< the circumstances, but it struck too close to Valyn’s own worries for comfort. Was the leach prying for information?

“Of course he’s safe,” Gent responded, “out there at the ass end of the known world. Who’s going to kill him? Another monk?”

Talal shook his head. “Someone betrayed Sanlitun. If they could kill one Emperor, they could kill another.”

“It’d take anyone the better part of a season to get to the Bone Mountains if they left yesterday on a fast horse,” Lin broke in, setting a hand on Valyn’s sholder. “Kaden—the Emperor, I should say—will be fine.”

“Unless someone got on that fast horse a few months ago,” Valyn interjected. It was maddening, not knowing what, exactly, had happened to his father. He was clenching his fist, he realized, and with an effort he loosened the fingers.

“Val,” Lin replied, “you’re making the whole thing sound like some grand plot.”

“Probably just a disgruntled idiot with a death wish,” Gent added.

A grand plot. That was precisely what the Aedolian had suggested.

“I’ve got to talk to Rallen,” Valyn said.

Lin arched an eyebrow. “That sack of shit?”

“He’s the Master of Cadets.”

“Don’t remind me,” she snorted.

“That means he decides who leaves the Islands. And when. And for what purpose.”

“You taking a vacation?”

“I could be in the Bone Mountains in under a week. Someone has to let Kaden know.”

Lin stared at him incredulously, then pursed her lips. “Good luck with that.”

 

For all the myths and fables surrounding the place, the central command building of the Kettral—the Eyrie—didn’t look like much. For one thing, despite the name, it was not perched on a dramatic cliffside—in fact, it squatted in the middle of a flat patch of ground a few hundred paces from the harbor. It wasn’t even a fortress. When you lived on an island hundreds of miles from the nearest coast guarded by the only airborne fighting force in the world, you didn’t need much in the way of fortresses. Instead, a few steps led up to a long, low, stone building facing the square. It might have served as a stable for some country gentleman, or a storehouse for a reasonably prosperous merchant. And yet, that nondescript building was where the men and women of the Eyrie made the decisions and gave the orders that toppled kings and subverted empires.

Valyn took the few steps without even noticing them, knocked the door open with a fist, and plowed down the stone hallway, his boots striking on the flags. Identical teak doors lined the hall; there were no names, no signs to direct a newcomer. If you didn’t know where to find the person you were looking for, you didn’t belong in the building. Valyn pulled up before the office of Jakob Rallen, the Master of Cadets. It was customary to knock, but Valyn was in no mood for custom.

Rallen was one of the few people on the Islands lacking the deadly look of the Kettral. In fact, the man didn’t look like much of a soldier at all. His sharp beady eyes and sweating bald pate seemed more suited to a menial clerk than a warrior, and aside from the short knife all Kettral wore at their belts, Valyn thought he probably hadn’t picked up a weapon in fifteen years. He wore blacks like the rest, of course, but he was fat to the point of obesity, and his belly slumped obscenely over his belt when he stood. Probably why he doesn’t stand, Valyn thought as he waited at attention, forcing himself to remain silent until the man looked up from the parchment in front of him.

Rallen raised a single fat finger. “You’re interrupting crucial business,” he droned, his eyes on the figures in front of him, “and so you will have to wait.”

The business didn’t look all that crucial—a few grease-smeared papers next to a half-cleaned plate of chicken—but Rallen liked to make people wait. The exercise of power seemed to bring him almost as much pleasure as stuffing his face with food.

Valyn took a deep breath. For the thousandth time, he tried to muster some sympathy. After all, it wasn’t as though Rallen had chosen to become a useless invalid. The man had actually passed Hull’s Trial somehow, had flown missions once—or one mission, at least. He’d shattered his leg on a nighttime drop and hadn’t been able to walk without the support of a cane ever since. It was a tough card to draw for someone who’d spent eight years training, and the man did not handle it well. He seemed to resent anyone more fortunate than him, and that put Valyn, with his royal name and luxurious childhood, just about at the top of the list.

Valyn couldn’t count the number of times he’d drawn latrine duty or third watch or stable mop for barely discernible violations of minor regulations. It would have been a whole lot easier to feel pity for Rallen if someone hadn’t made him Master of Cadets. The choice had baffled Valyn at first—why would anyone put an inept, undisciplined wash-up in charge, especially one with no combat experience? After a few years on the Islands, however, he thought he was starting to understand. Kettral training wasn’t all about fighting. It was about dealing with people, about keeping calm in difficult situations. No one ever said as much, of course, but Valyn had started to suspect that Rallen was all part of the training. He took another breath and waited.

“Ah,” the man said, shifting his gaze from the parchment at last. “Valyn. I’m sorry for your loss.”

He sounded about as sorry as a butcher hawking his meat, but Valyn nodded. “Thank you.”

“I hope, however,” the man continued, pursing his lips, “that you’re not here to beg for any sort of… leniency in your training as a result. Kettral remain Kettral, even when tragedy strikes.”

“No begging, sir,” Valyn replied, trying to keep his temper in check. “A request.”

“Oh, of course! How foolish of me. The great Valyn hui’Malkeenian would never beg. You probably have slaves to do your begging for you, eh?”

“No more than you do, sir.”

Rallen’s eyes narrowed. “What’s that now? I won’t tolerate insouciance in my office, regardless of your situation—”

“No insouciance, sir. Just a request.”

“Well?” the man asked, waving his hand as though he’d been waiting all along for Valyn to voice it. “Are you going to make it, then, or are you going to continue to waste my time and yours?”

Valyn hesitated, then plunged ahead. “I want to take a bird north. Off the Islands. To Ashk’lan. Kaden won’t know about our father’s death. He might be in danger.”

For a moment Rallen just stared, eyes wide in his fleshy face. Then he doubled over with laughter—rolling, mirthless, sardonic laughter.

“You want… ,” he managed in between wheezes, “to take a bird. That’s wonderful. Truly wonderful. Every other cadet on the Islands is training for Hull’s Trial, training to become true Kettral, and you want… to just skip it! You truly are the son of an Emperor!”

“It’s not for me, sir,” Valyn ground out. “I’m concerned about my brother.”

“Oh, of course you are. And of course you’re the man for the job, eh? The Emperor has the entire Aedolian Guard, men trained for one purpose only—to watch over him—but you think a raw cadet who hasn’t even passed the Trial is going to take care of everything, eh? Probably the men in charge back in Annur haven’t even considered this, is that it? They don’t even realize just how good you really are!”

Valyn hadn’t truly expected to be allowed the bird, but there was nothing to be lost in trying. At least it set him up for his real request. “Not me, then, but an established Wing. A Wing of veterans. The Flea, maybe—”

Rallen was already waving him to silence. “The Flea is north with Fane and half a dozen other Wings, trying to sort out what in ’Shael’s name went wrong. Besides, this isn’t Kettral work. As I just got done telling you, the Emperor, bright be the days of his life, has the Aedolian Guard to protect him. Here on the Islands, you’re learning—those of you who can be taught—how to kill people, not how to keep them alive. The Emperor will be fine. This isn’t your concern—or mine, for that matter.”

“But, sir,” Valyn began.

“No,” Rallen said.

“Maybe if I spoke with Daveen Shaleel—” “Shaleel won’t speak with you.”

“Perhaps if you intervened on my behalf—”

“I have other things to do than run errands for a pampered son of an Emperor.”

“I see,” Valyn replied, eyeing the chicken carcass. “Lunch is a priority.”

Rallen heaved his bulk half out of his chair and loomed over his desk, face florid with anger. “You will stand down, cadet!”

Valyn had overstepped. He knew it the moment the words left his mouth, and yet he couldn’t bring himself to swallow them.

“You think,” Rallen continued, puffing so hard, Valyn thought he might collapse, “that just because you’re the son of the Emperor you have the right to strut in here and demand things? Do you think that?”

“No, sir,” Valyn said, trying to change course.

“It is not your place, not your place to judge. Not your place to question. Obedience, cadet. That is what is required of you.”

Valyn gritted his teeth and nodded. If there were any choice, he would have taken his request directly to Shaleel. She was the commander of all field operations in northeastern Vash, which meant she coordinated everything the Kettral did in one of the stickiest parts of the world. She was also one of the hardest and smartest soldiers on the Islands. Unfortunately, whatever oddities the Kettral allowed, their command hierarchy was as inviolate as that of any other Annurian military order. If Valyn tried to bypass the Master of Cadets and barge directly into Shaleel’s chart room, he’d find himself back scrubbing latrines quicker than he could recite the Soldier’s Creed. And then, there were the words of the dead Aedolian echoing in his ears: Someone here… maybe someone important… is part of it.

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said, trying out his very best conciliatory voice. “My place is to serve and to obey. I stepped out of line, and for that, I would like to volunteer myself for third watch every second night this week.”

Rallen leaned back in his chair and squinted at him for a long time before nodding slowly. “You did. You did step out of line. You’ve got to get it through that dense head of yours that you’re not in charge here. You. Are. Not. In. Charge.” He smiled. “Third watch for a month, I think, should be adequate to convey the lesson.”

 

SIX

 

We’re going to regret this in the morning,” Valyn said, peering into the depths of his tankard.

“We’ve been drunk before,” Lin replied, waving over Salia, the serving girl, with a free hand, “and with less cause. Your father just died. No one expects you to be swimming circuits of the Islands.”

Your father just died. Even a week later, the words still landed like a sharp fist to the gut. Lin wasn’t being cruel; she, like the rest of the Kettral, had long ago been trained to speak in the clear, crisp periods appropriate to combat. Talking round and round a point was like wearing lace into battle.

“I think Rallen would be happy to see me doing just that,” Valyn said, settling his elbow on the table and his forehead against the heel of his hand.

Lin frowned, tossed back the remainder of her ale, then frowned again. “Rallen’s a shit-sucking turd. It was bad form, giving you third watch at a time like this.”

“I volunteered. It was the only way to get out of his office without something worse.”

“Aside from avoiding his office in the first place.”

“I had to try,” Valyn snapped. “It’ll take an imperial delegation at least two months to get to Kaden: a few weeks at sea and then twice that riding north from the Bend. They should have sent a Kettral Wing.”

There was more venom in his voice than he’d intended. After a week of third watch, days training for the Trial, nights watching his own back, mourning his father silently, and the constant, nagging worry about Kaden, he’d taken the first free hour to catch the boat across the sound to Hook, made the short walk along the alley to Manker’s, and polished off five tankards of ale before Lin even walked in the door. It was just as all the Kettral said: You went to Hook to escape your problems and came back with a dozen more.

While the Eyrie kept a close eye on Hook, they didn’t control it in the same way as they did the other islands. In fact, sometimes it seemed as though no one controlled the place. There was no mayor or town guard, no merchant council, and no local aristocracy. Lin described it as a “hive of ’Shael-spawned pirates,” and Valyn supposed she wasn’t far wrong. Those who ended up on the island were all desperate—people hiding from mountains of debt, or death warrants, or some other kind of pain. He always got the impression they would have run farther, but there was no place farther to run.

Like most of the buildings on the island, Manker’s was built out over Buzzard’s Bay, the entire thing held up by tarred timbers sunk in the silt of the harbor bottom. On the outside, the tavern was painted a garish red to compete with the yellow and bilious green buildings flanking it; inside, however, it was low, and dark, and sagging, the kind of place where people held their purses close, kept their voices down, and sat with their backs to the wall. It suited Valyn’s mood just fine.

“Kaden will be all right,” Lin said, extending a tentative hand and resting it on Valyn’s.

“There’s no reason to believe that,” he growled. “According to the Flea, my father was murdered. Score upon score of Aedolians plus the ’Shaelspawned Palace Guard, and someone still managed to kill him. Kaden’s in some ’Kent-kissing monastery. What’s to keep someone from getting to him?”

“The fact that he is in that monastery,” Lin replied, her voice level. “He’s safer tucked away there than he would be anywhere inside the empire. It’s probably why he was sent there in the first place. No one even knows where it is.”

Valyn took a swig of his ale, then hesitated. For the past week he’d been wrestling with himself over whether to tell Lin about the murdered Aedolian, about the plot the man had revealed. He had no question about her loyalty—of all the cadets on the Islands, he knew Lin the best. She’d covered his back in scores of training missions, saving him a dozen broken bones at the least, and he’d hauled her out of some tight spots as well. If there was anyone he could trust, it was Ha Lin, but then, according to Hendran, secrecy admitted no half measures. The fewer people who knew a thing, the safer it was.

“What?” she asked, tilting her head to the side.

“Nothing.”

“You can lie to me if you want, but you’re gnawing on something.” “Everyone’s gnawing on something.”

“Well, why don’t you give me a bite?”

Valyn tapped absently at the side of his glass. Lin’s eyes were warm and urgent, frank enough in their concern that he had to look away. Secrecy was all well and good, but there was always the possibility that the plot against him would succeed. If he were the only one to know about it, and someone killed him, the knowledge would die, too. And, if he was being honest with himself, it would feel good to tell someone. He leaned forward over the table.

“You remember that ship… ,” he began.

The tale didn’t take long to relate, and at the end of it, Lin sat back, took a long pull on her ale, and let out a low whistle.

“Meshkent, Ananshael, and a bucket of pickled shit,” she swore quietly. “You believe him?”

Valyn shrugged. “Men don’t tend to spend their last breath lying.” “But who?” she asked.

He sucked a breath slowly between his teeth. “No way to know. I’ve been over all the names a dozen times. It could be anyone.”

“Rallen’s high up at command. He doesn’t like you,” she pointed out. “Rallen’s too ’Kent-kissing lazy to hoist his fat ass out of his chair, let alone to put together a plot to topple the empire.”

She took another swig of ale, then pursed her lips. “Let’s go back to your father’s murder. If you can figure out who killed him, it might give you a clue who to look out for here on the Islands.”

Valyn shook his head. “I’ve been thinking about that whenever one of the trainers gives me half a breath to myself. The Flea didn’t reveal much before he left, and no one else has told me shit since.”

“Who were your father’s enemies?”

Valyn spread his hands. “Take your pick. He was respected as Emperor, but even good emperors piss people off. Every time he passed judgment on some taxation issue, some disputed border, some stolen inheritance, he alienated at least half the people involved. None of the nobility appreciated the military draft—wanted to let the peasants do the fighting. None of the peasants liked forced labor, even when they got a stipend. The Black Shore Shipping Guild is always angry about something, despite the fact that they basically have an imperial monopoly. And then there’s the constant unrest at the borders: Antherans, Urghul, Hannans—all of them with these blood cults that are springing up, all of them pressing back against the ‘foreign oppressors,’ never mind that our oppression is what brings law courts and foreign trade, military protection and technological advancement. Even the Manjari seem to be getting restless recently, if you can judge from the Wings we’ve sent. There are plenty of people who’d want to see an Annurian Emperor dead. Shit, we might as well throw the Csestriim into the mix along with everyone else—maybe they weren’t all killed off three thousand years ago.”

“All right, I take your point. It’s a long list.”

“It’s endless. Until the Flea or Fane or someone gets back from Annur, it’s impossible to know where to start. I have to distrust everyone.”

Lin tilted her head to one side. “So why did you trust me?” she asked.

Valyn hesitated, suddenly conscious of the weight of her hand on top of his own, of the delicate, salty scent of her hair. She held his gaze with those wide, almond eyes of hers, her lips slightly parted.

Valyn took a deep breath. “I don’t know.” It was a lie, of course. He did know, but what was he going to say? He was a soldier. She was a soldier. If he suggested anything more, she’d be likely to laugh him off the Islands or put a blade in his gut. “I needed another pair of eyes,” he finished lamely.

An inscrutable glint flashed in her eyes—gone so quickly he couldn’t be sure he had even seen it. “So what are we going to do?” she asked.

In spite of himself, Valyn grinned. It felt good to have someone on his side. “I figured I’d have you guard my back every waking moment and take a dagger for me if the shit gets thick. How’s that sound?”

“I signed up for the Kettral, not the Aedolian Guard,” she shot back.

“Are you saying you wouldn’t gladly throw down your life to keep me from harm?”

He had meant it as a joke, but the remark sobered Ha Lin. “You’ve got to be careful,” she said.

“What I’ve got to be,” Valyn replied, his mood souring with hers, “is off this ’Shael-spawned island. I could be at Ashk’lan in less than a week, and instead I’m here, drinking ale at Manker’s.”

“Just a month more,” Lin replied. “We’ll pass the Trial and become full Kettral. A month after that, you’ll be flying your own missions, commanding your own Wing. You said it yourself—it’ll take anyone traveling by land at least that long to get to Kaden anyway. Two months, Val, that’s all.”

Valyn shook his head. “I’m already too late.”

“Meaning?”

Valyn exhaled heavily, pulling himself back to the table, searching in his cup for the words. “We’ve spent half our lives here, Lin, learning to fly, to fight, to kill people dozens of different ways, all to defend the empire.” He shrugged. “Then, when the empire needed defending, when the Emperorneeded defending, I wasn’t there to do a ’Kent-kissing thing about it.”

She shook her head. “It’s not your fault, Valyn.”

“I know,” he replied, reaching for his ale.

She stopped his hand with her own, forcing him to look at her. “It’s not your fault. You couldn’t have protected him.”

“I know,” he said again, trying to believe the words. “I know, but maybe I can protect Kaden.”

“Two months,” she said once more, leaning in as though to will her patience upon him. “Just hold on.”

Valyn freed his hand, took a deep swig from his tankard, then nodded.

Before he could otherwise respond, however, the door clattered open and Sami Yurl stepped in. The youth scanned the low room with an expression of amused distaste. He had left his father’s gilded halls nearly ten years ago, but he still seemed to regard the workmanlike buildings of Hook and the other Islands as beneath his dignity, and he crossed under the lintel as though condescending to enter.

“Wench,” he said, snapping his fingers at Salia. “Wine. Whatever’s not watered down too horribly. And a clean glass this time, or I’ll introduce you to my displeasure.”

Salia cringed and bowed her way toward the kitchens, nodding obsequiously.

Lin growled deep in her throat, and Yurl, as though he heard the sound, turned to the corner table where she and Valyn sat. Salia came hurrying back with the full glass of wine, and he took it without looking at her, then raised it toward Valyn with a smirk.

“Congratulations! One step closer to the throne!”

Valyn moved his tankard to the side slowly, then reached down for the handle of his belt knife. Lin caught his wrist beneath the table, her grip surprisingly strong.

“Not now,” she hissed.

Blood hammered in Valyn’s ears, behind his eyes. It was partly the ale—he understood that dimly—but only Lin’s hand kept him from drawing the knife.

Not now,” she said again. “You fight him, and you’ll end up in the brig for the Trial. Is that what you want?”

Yurl watched the whole scene from a few paces away, sipping at his wine with an amused smile. Like Valyn and Ha Lin, he had left his swords behind, relying on his belt knife and Kettral blacks to keep Hook’s more enterprising criminals at bay. Valyn flexed his hand beneath the table. Yurl’s knifework was good, better than good, but nothing like his swordplay. Knife against knife, Valyn would have a chance. Not to kill the bastard—he’d end up hanged for that—but to cut him down a peg or two… but then, as Lin had already pointed out, he’d miss his chance at the Trial. He put his hands back on top of the table deliberately.

Yurl smiled even wider. “Don’t tell me you don’t want the Unhewn Throne,” he mused, grinning.

“My brother has Intarra’s eyes,” Valyn grated. “My brother will sit the throne.”

“How filial.” Yurl turned his attention to Ha Lin. “And what about you? You figure if you fuck His Most Radiant Highness here enough times, you can ride his gilded cock to wealth and glory?”

It was a groundless gibe. Despite Valyn’s confusing feelings for Lin, they had never so much as kissed. If they shared a blanket sometimes on a miserable patrol exercise, all the Kettral did as much—it was just to stay alive, shivering against each other beneath the woolen fabric, trying to save a little warmth from the hard ground below and the chill air above. The truth was, Valyn went out of his way to avoid such situations, wary, lest she realize he thought of her as more than a fellow soldier. Yurl, however, had never bothered much with the truth.

“Don’t be hard on yourself,” Lin sneered, “just because you don’t measure up.”

The youth chuckled as though amused, but Valyn could see the jest had hit home. Of all the people on the Islands, only Yurl seemed to harbor any lust for Valyn’s position.

He sneered, then turned toward the bar.

“This wine is swill,” he said to Salia, dropping the glass, letting it shatter, the shards bright in the flickering lamplight. “You can pay for it out of your earnings.”

He cast a cool glance at Juren, the hulking thug Manker employed to keep something resembling order. Juren wasn’t too bright, but he wasn’t about to go toe to toe with a Kettral over a broken glass of wine. The man scowled at the floor, but made no move as Salia scurried to pick up the shattered vessel. Yurl chuckled in disgust, then turned toward the door and left.

Valyn slowly unclenched his hand, and as he did, Lin released his wrist. “Someday,” she said, her voice tight and hard. “But not today.”

Valyn nodded, hoisted his tankard, and took a long pull. “Not today,” he agreed.

A few paces away, Salia was weeping quietly as she swept the broken glass into a pan.

“Salia,” he said, beckoning her over.

The girl rose unsteadily and approached.

“How much was the wine?”

“Eight flames,” she snuffled. “I gave him Manker’s own stock.”

Eight flames. It was probably as much as the poor girl earned in a week. At least, if you didn’t count the money she made on her back upstairs.

“Here,” Valyn said, shelling out enough coin to cover his ale plus the spilled wine and broken glass. The Eyrie didn’t pay soldiers much, especially not cadets, but he could afford it more than she could. Besides, the desire to drink had gone out of him.

“I couldn’t,” she began, though she eyed the coin hungrily.

“Take it,” Valyn replied. “Someone has to clean up Yurl’s mess.”

“Thank you, sir,” Salia said, ducking her head as she scooped up the coppers. “Thank you so much. You’re always welcome here at Manker’s, sir, and if you ever need… anything else—” She batted her eyes, suddenly bold. “—you just let me know.”

“That was gallant,” Lin said with a tight smile after the girl had left. “She has a hard life.”

“Who doesn’t?”

Valyn snorted. “Good point. Speaking of hard lives, I’m heading back to the barracks—we’re supposed to be running the perimeter before dawn tomorrow, and all this ale isn’t going to be doing my head any favors.”

Lin chuckled. Then, in her best imitation of Adaman Fane’s gravelly voice, she began, “Real Kettral embrace adverse circumstances. Real Kettral lust for suffering.”

Valyn nodded ruefully. “Six tankards on an empty stomach—all part of the training.”

As they stepped out of Manker’s, he stopped to watch the sun setting over the sound to the west. In that direction, more than a thousand leagues distant, past the wind-lashed waves of Iron Sea, past the karst peaks of the Broken Bay, past dozens of islands, some too small for names, Annur glittered, tiled roofs, grand palaces, shit-reeking hovels all clustered around Intarra’s Spear, the enormous glowing tower at the heart of the Dawn Palace. Sailors could make out the Spear when they were still two days distant—used it to navigate toward the heart of the empire. It was supposed to be impregnable, that tower, one of the final fortresses of the Csestriim, and yet, it had not protected the Emperor.

My father is dead, Valyn thought to himself, and for the first time, the words felt real. He turned to Lin, wanting to say something, to thank her for being there, for sharing the ale and the grief, for holding him back when his own anger drove him to strike out. She watched him with those bright, careful eyes, lips pursed as though she were about to speak. Before either of them could break the silence, however, a terrible crack shattered the still evening air.

Valyn turned, dropping his hand to his belt knife while Lin pivoted to put her back to his, settling into the low ready guard the Kettral used as their standard defensive position. His eyes flicked over the street, the alleys, the rooftops in quick succession, reading terrain and evaluating threat. The garish façades of the rickety structures stared back at him, red, and green, and blue, windows and open doors gaping like missing teeth. A dozen yards away, a dog perked up its ears at the strange sound, its bone momentarily forgotten. A few scraps of dingy curtain blew in the light breeze. An alley gate creaked idly on its hinges. Aside from that—nothing. The noise had probably come from the harbor—some drunken idiot who forgot to throw the catch on a winch and let his load go tumbling to the deck. Jumping at shadows, Valyn thought to himself. All the talk of plots and murders must have put them both on edge.

Then, just as he was about to straighten up, Manker’s gave a low, horrible groan. The crack of splintering timber sent the dog bolting away as the alehouse’s roof sagged in on itself, crumpling like wet paper, shedding slate tiles that fell in a deadly rain onto the street. The whole thing lurched toward the bay, then teetered horribly on its stilts. The people inside began to scream.

“The door!” Lin yelled, but Valyn was already moving. The two of them had spent enough time studying demolitions to know what happened to anyone trapped inside a building when it collapsed. People would be crushed or worse, drowned when the structure finally sloughed into the bay, dragging those pinned inside beneath the waves.

The whole building had peeled away from the alley, leaving a gap of several feet between the crumbling dirt of the lane and the listing doorway. Valyn glanced down—twenty-five feet or so to the water—a trivial distance, except for the jagged ends of the shattered stilts thrusting up like pikes. Anyone who tumbled into the space risked getting impaled on those splintered ends or ground into the murky water when the building finally collapsed. A hand appeared on the doorframe, groping desperately from the darkness within. Valyn swore once and vaulted the gap.

He caught the low lintel of the door with one hand, steadied himself, then reached through the door with his other to catch the wrist. He hauled, and Juren emerged, coughing and swearing. Blood poured from a nasty gash across his bald scalp and his ankle twisted sickeningly as he put weight on it, but other than that, the man appeared to be unharmed.

“Stay there,” Valyn said. “I’ll hand the others out to you. You can steady them before they jump over to Lin.” He jerked his chin to indicate his companion, who waited warily on the bank a few paces away.

The man flicked his eyes toward the interior of the tavern. Something had arrested the slow, inevitable collapse, but over the screams of the injured, Valyn could still hear the cracking of posts and beams warped past their tolerance.

“Fuck that,” Juren spat, his lips curled into a desperate rictus. He gathered his weight on his good leg, then leapt for the far bank.

“You shit-licking coward… ,” Lin began, yanking the man painfully to his feet by the ear as soon as he hit the bank.

“Leave it, Lin,” Valyn bellowed. “I need you over here.”

Ha Lin snarled, backhanded Juren across the face, measured the gap at a glance, then leapt, alighting on the opposite side of the doorframe from Valyn.

“You or me?” she asked, peering in through the door.

“I’m stronger,” Valyn said. “I’ll drag them to you. You get them across.” Lin eyed the gap. “Right.” She caught Valyn’s gaze, hesitated, then

waved him ahead. “Work fast.”

He nodded, then stepped inside.

It was even worse than he had anticipated. Manker’s had been a gloomy

den before the collapse, and the buckling ceiling and slumping walls had almost entirely blocked the few windows. Wreckage lay everywhere— ceiling timbers, busted tables, chunks of lath and plaster cracked from the crumbling walls. Half a dozen small fires—kindled, no doubt, when the lanterns smashed against the dry timber—licked at the jumble of broken beams, illuminating a thousand scattered shards of glass. Valyn paused, trying to get his bearings, trying to get his ’Kent-kissed footing on the floor, which sloped as precipitously as the deck of a clipper under full sail. People were shouting, moaning, crying for help, but at first he couldn’t even see them in the fitful gloom.

“’Shael take it,” he swore, shoving a board out of his way with one hand, trying to shield his eyes from the dust and debris.

He almost tripped over the first body—a thin, sallow man, his chest staved in by one of the collapsing timbers. Valyn dropped to a knee and put his fingers to the man’s neck, checking for a pulse, though he knew what he would find. As he rose, he heard a woman’s voice sobbing nearby. Salia—the serving girl.

She was trapped beneath a fallen rafter, but seemed alert and uninjured, if terrified. He took a step toward her, and the entire structure shrieked, pitching another few feet toward the bay.

“Val,” Lin shouted from the door. “Time to get out. The whole thing’s going down!”

He ignored the warning and crossed the few remaining steps to the trapped girl.

“Are you hurt?” he asked, dropping to one knee and running his hands along the beam, trying to discover what held her down.

Salia looked up at him, her dark eyes terrified, reflecting the fires that raged all around them now, singeing his face and her dress.

“My leg,” she gasped. “Don’t leave me.”

Valyn,” Lin bellowed. “Extract now. You’ve got no time.”

“I’m coming,” he shouted back, looping a hand beneath the girl’s armpit and pulling. She screamed at the pain, the piercing howl of a trapped animal, bit down on her lip, and fainted.

“Son of a whore,” Valyn swore. She was held up somehow, but in the dusty murk, he couldn’t see where. Somewhere to his left, a beam crashed down from the ceiling and the whole tavern listed a few more degrees. He ran his hands around Salia again, searching for the obstruction. “Slowly,” he told himself. “Slowly.” If there was one thing he’d learned as a cadet, it was to act deliberately, even when the stakes were high. “Especially when the stakes are high, you fool,” he muttered.

As his fingers brushed past her waist, he found the problem—her dress had snagged on a wide splinter of wood. He yanked at it, but it held firm.

“Valyn, you stupid son of a bitch!” Lin shouted. There was fear in her voice now, fear and anger. “Get the fuck out!”

“I’m moving!” he called back, slipping his belt knife from the sheath and hacking away the snagged portion of the dress.

The girl came free all in a lurch. He dropped the knife, grabbed her by the dress and the hair, and dragged her across the floor toward the dim outline of the door, where Ha Lin was gesturing furiously.

“Go,” he shouted. “Get across! I’ll throw her to you!”

Lin snarled, froze in an anguish of indecision, then nodded and disappeared.

When Valyn pulled the unconscious girl through the doorway, he found, to his horror, that the gap had grown to almost a dozen feet. He could jump it, but Salia was still unconscious, draped limply over his shoulder.

Lin read the situation instantly, shook her head, then stepped right to the edge of the yawning crevasse.

“Throw her,” she said, gesturing.

Valyn stared at the gap, aghast. Salia couldn’t have been three quarters of his weight, but there was no way he could toss her the full distance. He glanced down. The jagged pilings bristled like spikes.

“I can’t,” he shouted back.

“You have to! Now, fucking throw her! I’ll catch her wrists.”

It was impossible. Lin knew it as well as he did. Which is why she wants me to do it, Valyn realized in a rush. Salia was dead weight. He could make the jump alone, but just barely. As long as he held on to the unconscious girl, he was trapped on the wrong side of the gap, pinned to a burning, teetering shell that would drag him to his death. He saw it all clear as day, but what could he do? Drop the unconscious girl and leave her to die? It was the right choice, the mission-responsible choice, but this wasn’t a ’Kentkissing mission. He couldn’t just…

“I’ll jump with her,” he shouted, preparing to sling Salia across his back. “I think I can make it.”

Lin’s eyes widened with horror. Then they hardened.

Before Valyn understood what was happening, she had her belt knife out, was cocking her arm, then throwing. Valyn watched, stunned, as the bright blade flashed end over end in the sun, then buried itself in Salia’s neck with a sudden gush of hot, bright blood. The girl’s lips parted in something that might have been a cry or a moan, but more blood choked it off.

“She’s dead,” Lin shouted. “You can’t save her now, Valyn! She’s fucking dead. Now, jump!”

Valyn stared at Salia, at the hilt of the knife pressed up against her neck. She’s dead. Beneath him, the building shuddered and groaned. He let out a roar of rage, dropped the corpse, and leapt. His feet hit the crumbling verge, and Lin caught him by the wrists, dragging him to safety.

He shrugged her off and spun back toward the tavern. Salia was gone, tumbled down into the gap. Flames licked up through the open door. Inside, people were still screaming, trapped as fire consumed the tarry timbers. A hand appeared on the sill, bloody and burned. It flailed, trying to find purchase, then fell away. Finally, the entire building trembled, sloughed away from the shore, and then, as though exhausted, crushed beneath its own weight, collapsed inward and sank into the bay.

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