Two continents at war, the Three Kingdoms and Ishara, are divided by past bloodshed. When an outside threat arises—the reawakening of a powerful ancient race that wants to remake the world—the two warring nations must somehow set aside generational hatreds and form an alliance to fight their true enemy.
Spine of the Dragon by Kevin J. Anderson is on sale on June 4, 2019. Please enjoy the following excerpt!
The great dust storm prowled over the boundary mountains like a living thing. Brown and angry, the murk loomed in the sky as it approached the capital city of Bannriya from the west. On the high sandstone towers of the central castle, red flags whipped and twisted in the rising wind; they served as warning signals to alert the people to prepare for rough weather.
Protected within the city’s walls, men and women scurried through the streets. Spice merchants covered baskets of cinnamon bark, lumpy turmeric roots, and dried peppers before dragging them inside their shops. Innkeepers rolled up canvas awnings and lashed them in place. Food vendors pulled tables into sheds. Mothers called in their children, and the bang of closing shutters echoed through the lower alleys.
Adan Starfall, the young king of Suderra, stood alone on Bannriya Castle’s highest tower, watching as his great city prepared for the storm. “This will be a bad one,” he murmured. “Very bad.” More warning flags were raised on towers across the city, and rumors spread just as quickly. The ministry buildings closed for the day, with the business of the kingdom pausing to weather the storm. Councilors, commanders, and trade representatives returned to their homes in the outer districts.
The fortified main castle had been built on the high point inside the great walled city. On clear nights, Adan loved to stare at the stars from this gazing deck, but today it only offered him a view of the thickening curtain of dust. The oncoming clouds roiled like smoke, stirred up by some titanic disturbance in the desert far to the west. In the face of such a storm, his power as a king meant little.
The stiffening breeze whipped strands of reddish-brown hair across his face and high forehead, and into his eyes. He brushed the hair aside, securing it with the plain circlet crown he wore, and ran his hand down along the goatee that punctuated his rounded chin. His blue eyes looked young for a king’s, compassionate and curious. The weight of rule had not yet made him feel older than his years.
He guessed the full force of the storm would strike within two hours. Adan had reigned here for only three years, but Bannriya had stood for nearly two thousand years and had endured many a storm. The citizens of the capital knew how to find shelter and wait until the weather passed. Afterward the people would emerge with brooms and brushes to scour their walkways and outdoor stairs, then shake out the banners of celebration for which the ancient city was known.
He would not abandon his people to their own problems, though. His father had taught him better than that, instilling in him compassion and a desire to work on behalf of the people he ruled. Adan had promised to be a different sort of king when he accepted the throne of Suderra, one of three kingdoms in the Commonwealth. As he stared at the labyrinth of streets below, he tried to think of how to help. Adan wanted to show his people he was not like the aloof kings or corrupt regents the Suderrans had endured before he arrived.
Behind him, a door into the castle tower opened unexpectedly, and Penda emerged onto the gazing deck. He felt the familiar rush of pride that came to him each time he saw his clever, beautiful wife. Penda was slender, with large brown eyes even darker than her rich brunette hair, which hung long and loose. Her quick wit, heart-shaped face, and confident movements were typical of the wild Utauk tribes, the nomadic trader clans that ranged across the Commonwealth.
“I can feel this storm coming even inside the castle, my handsome Starfall.” She stepped past him to look at the approaching dust cloud. Out of habit, she traced a circle around her heart. “Cra, that’s a powerful one!” The green reptile bird on her shoulder ruffled his wings and hopped from one clawed foot to the other.
At twenty-one, Penda was two years younger than Adan, yet in her travels with the Utauk caravans, she had seen more of the world. He liked to think that he had tamed his exotic wife, though it was more likely she had tamed him. He accepted that. She was no fawning princess and never would be—and he would not want her that way. They had been married for two years, and he still felt caught up in new love for her. Penda adored him back, he had no doubt of that.
He wasn’t sure he could say the same of Xar, his wife’s mischievous pet ska. He was the size of a falcon, with emerald-green scales on his body, pale green plumage, and faceted eyes like a moth’s. A thin collar around his scaly neck was inset with a central diamond. On her shoulder, Penda wore a protective leather pad to provide a perch for Xar. Only Utauks could keep and tend the flying creatures, and some owners, like Penda, had a clear heart link with their pets, sharing sensations. The ska haughtily tilted his head from side to side, as if expecting Adan to do something about the coming storm that troubled his Penda.
“Easy, Xar.” She stroked the side of the creature’s narrow face and turned to Adan. “I’ve weathered many dust storms as they tore at our tents out in the hills, but I sense that this isn’t just a storm. It doesn’t feel natural.” She seemed to be fighting off an unconscious shiver.
Above them, a yellow banner snapped and strained against its pole. The air smelled of bitter dust and woodsmoke when Adan inhaled. “It’s a storm. What more can it be?”
Penda closed her eyes, as if she could visualize the storm better by not looking at it. Xar stirred on her shoulder, sensing the world for her. “It was created deep in the Furnace. It could be a . . . harbinger.” Her eyes snapped open, and she looked toward the hills again. With a buzzing sound not quite like a growl, the reptile bird buried his face in her thick hair and peeked out at Adan. Penda sighed. “Skas are sensitive to these things.”
“So are you.” Adan put an arm around her and drew her closer, and Penda leaned against him. He trusted his wife’s senses, knew that Utauks had a special affinity for the scant threads of magic that remained in the land. “The city is already preparing, but let’s see what we can do in the time we have left. I’ll call out the Banner guards, and we’ll ride from neighborhood to neighborhood, offering assistance.”
As they turned to leave, a squarish older man with a neatly trimmed dark beard burst through the door onto the platform. “What are you still doing here, dear heart? Cra, get inside!” Hale Orr, Penda’s father, gestured with the long-healed stump of his left hand. He wore crimson and black silks, a loose jerkin sashed over his belly, and baggy pantaloons. One of his front teeth was gold; the others were bright white. “When we lived in caravan tents, a cloud of dust like that would have struck fear into our hearts.”
“Then be glad you gave up the nomadic life and moved into the castle with us, Father Orr,” Adan said. “We’ll be safe enough behind the walls, but I will do a quick patrol of the city before the storm hits. I know we have several ministers and visiting vassal lords in the castle, but most of the advisors, businessmen, and clerks have gone home to shore up their own doors and windows. Nevertheless, I’ll see the streets for myself—and be seen to show the people that I care about them.” His father, konag of the entire Commonwealth, king of the kings, had prepared him for this all his life. “They still consider me new here.”
“Nothing you can do about the storm,” Hale snorted. “Better to stay inside and protect my daughter.”
Penda took the king’s arm. “Actually, I’m riding with my Starfall. Let’s go.”
The older man huffed, and Adan said in a commiserating voice, “You won’t convince her otherwise, you know.”
Grumbling, Hale traced a quick circle around his heart. “The beginning is the end is the beginning.” He followed them back inside and barred the wooden door behind them and trudged after them down the stone steps. “I’d best get to work in here. The castle won’t blow away like a tent, but there’ll be plenty of cracks and crannies the storm can find. City dwellers may not know the best way to make a structure secure.”
With Xar balancing on Penda’s shoulder, they entered the main keep, where the staff busied themselves securing outer shutters and covering the interior latticed glass windows. They stuffed rags into cracks, then cocked their ears to listen for any whistle of stray wind.
Adan’s eleven-year-old squire, an overeager boy named Hom, hurried up, his curly hair tousled, his tunic askew. “Sire, how can I help? Can I bring your slippers? Some tea for the storm? Or—”
Adan held up a hand. “The storm isn’t here yet, Hom, and we still have work to do outside. I’ll keep you busy, no doubt of that.” As the younger son of one of the recently ousted regents, Hom Santis worked overtime to prove his reliability. Every day, the squire followed Adan around, trying to anticipate his needs, though he seemed oblivious to the king’s need for privacy. He took constant notes about Adan’s favorite foods, favorite color, favorite clothes. Given the boy’s diligence, Adan thought he might someday be appropriate for a position in the trade or tax ministry.
Hale Orr put a big arm around Hom’s shoulders. “Come, boy, you can help me make sure these people know how to ready the castle for the storm.” Not wanting to disturb Xar further by taking him outside, Penda left the ska on his stand in the main dining hall and accompanied Adan to the stables, where their horses had been saddled. A group of Banner guards were ready to ride as escort, while numerous other patrols had also spread out through the streets to help.
A skinny young soldier of fifteen led two chestnut mares forward for the king and queen, their favorite mounts. The young guard, Hom’s brother Seenan, had similarly unruly dark hair beneath his leather-and-steel helmet. “Got them ready for you, Sire. Word came down, and we didn’t want to waste any time.”
The guard helped him into the saddle, while Penda swung up onto her mare with the grace of a dancer. Once everyone was mounted, the king and queen led the procession of twelve Banner guards. Riding out of the stables, Seenan glanced uneasily at the sky. “Are you sure you want to do this, Sire? The streets are half empty already, and we need to be behind closed doors well before that storm hits.”
Using her knees, Penda nudged her mare into a trot, and the party sped up. Horse hooves clattered on the cobblestoned streets that spiraled out from the high castle. Passing under the main arch, Adan looked down at the statue of an ancient wreth king, symbolically toppled and left lying on the ground outside the castle. The creator race looked similar to humans, but haughtier, with large almond eyes, pointed chins, high foreheads, broad chests. This statue was a trophy brought here from one of the ruined wreth cities that still dotted the landscape, despite the many centuries that had passed.
Though relatively new in his role as king, Adan could feel the weight of history all around him. Bannriya was the first city built by human survivors after the devastating wreth wars two thousand years ago. The people had raised defiant banners to declare independence from their creator race. The wreths were long gone now, barely more than legends. After the disastrous magical conflict, humans had tirelessly worked to restore the damaged land, building homes and cities, not as slaves to the ancient race, but as free people.
On upper floors of the city’s brick-and-timber buildings, residents latched shutters. A woman in an apron hammered a lid onto a half-full rain barrel to keep the dust out of the water. Two boys hauled a cart against the wall of their home and turned it upside down to keep it from blowing away.
Adan and the escort party offered assistance to those who needed it. They dismounted to help shop owners move barrels, sacks of grain, or rolled-up rugs. Optimistic potters called out reduced prices, even though the streets were rapidly emptying; one seller even tried to haggle with King Adan.
As she rode along, Penda flicked her attention from one building to the next, as if trying to sense which ones would be most vulnerable. She pointed out an Utauk family, travelers from a small caravan, who had struck their pavilions and sought shelter in a narrow alley. Adan pulled his horse to a halt and addressed the Utauks. “You shouldn’t stay out in the open. Don’t you have a better place to ride out the storm?”
The caravan leader, a man with tangled white hair and a fluffy gray beard, crouched close to his horse. “This is better than out in the hills. The walls will shield us enough.” He glanced up at Penda and acknowledged the crimson and black colors of her tribe. “We just rode in yesterday.”
Penda called to one of the guards. “Take them to the stables in the next block, where they can stay with their animals. It’ll be safer than out on the street.”
Before the caravan leader could demur, Adan added, “We will pay the stable owner if he protests.”
With her finger, Penda drew a circle in the air, and the caravan leader responded in kind. The grateful Utauks gathered their packs and possessions and hurried off.
After another hour of rapid riding through the streets, an anxious Seenan pointed at the ominous bruised sky. “Sire, we really need to get back.” Dust was already pelting through the air.
Adan looked down the street, saw the last few people rushing inside, the final shutters being drawn closed. Knowing he had done what he could, he nodded. “That’s enough. I’m satisfied.”
Penda wheeled her chestnut mare, glanced back at her husband. “I’ll race you, Starfall! The Banner guards can find their own way back.” She galloped off, and Adan chased her through the streets toward the gate of the castle.
Copyright © 2019 by Kevin J. Anderson
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