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Excerpt: Silence of the Soleri by Michael Johnston

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Silence of the Soleri is the action-packed sequel to the epic fantasy novel Lev Grossman calls “bloody and utterly epic.”

Solus celebrates the Opening of the Mundus, a two-day holiday for the dead, but the city of the Soleri is hardly in need of diversion. A legion of traitors, led by a former captain of the Soleri military, rallies at the capital’s ancient walls. And inside those fortifications, trapped by circumstance, a second army fights for its very existence.

In a world inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear, this follow-up to Michael Johnston’s Soleri, finds Solus besieged from within as well as without and the Hark-Wadi family is stuck at the heart of the conflict.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Silence of the Soleri, on sale 02/16/2021.


Lifeless Things

They were statues, but the darkness gave them life. The shadows lent movement to their black eyes, and the gloom made their stone lips grimace.

Nollin Odine half expected to feel the warmth of human flesh when he touched one of the charred figures, but the surface was cold and lifeless. Yet there was life within it. A moment ago, he’d heard a voice cry out to him from within the burnt effigy.

It was a statue, yet somehow it was not a statue.

“What are you?” he asked, “and what do you want from me?”

See what has not yet been seen. The words echoed in his thoughts.

A dim light shone from somewhere high above, but it did little to illuminate the chamber. Still, he searched, looking for this thing he had not seen, uncertain of what he might find. When Noll first came upon the hidden palace, he arrived with Sarra Amunet and they discovered the twelve burnt figures. The Soleri were assumed dead. Sarra had thought that was the end of it. Hence, her scribe had uncorked a drink. He produced a cup and offered it to Noll. The wine held poison and he drank it.

Secrets are power.

Sarra Amunet whispered those words as the venom took hold of Noll. He died but he was not dead, and there was something in the chamber, some new mystery that had yet to be unearthed.

He found it in the dust or, rather, he found a place where there was no dust. In fact, there were twelve such places. In the grand solar, he stumbled upon twelve patches of stone where the rock was scorched black and even the dust did not settle. Twelve voids, the shadows of the ones who’d stood against the Soleri. Noll knew what stood before him. These were the creatures who pursued the twelve, the ones who wielded a flame as hot as the sun, or so he guessed. This was all just speculation. He had no way to know the truth. Hence, he turned once more to the statues.

“Who were these creatures and where did they go?”

The mouths of stone did not move, but the words of the twelve echoed in his thoughts.

Return us to Solus.

“Why?”

To witness the end.

THE SHATTERED VISAGE

1

Shot like an arrow, Rennon Hark-Wadi bolted from the darkness. He stumbled out of the Hollows and onto the streets of Solus. The flames were behind him, or so he thought. Ren had expected to see the sun when he left the underground passages of the city, but smoke filled the sky. It was everywhere, in the air and in his nose. The wide boulevards and sprawling plazas of the city were choked with it, and there were men and women charging in every direction. Something was amiss. There was panic in the streets, but Ren had other concerns. They were coming up the stairs at that very moment. “Are we all here?” he called to the others.

There were seven of them. Seven former ransoms of the empire. A few grunted in reply.

Twelve escaped the burnt ruins of the priory, their former home, their prison. Twelve.

Or was it more? He didn’t know. They’d stumbled through fire, met bandits, and soldiers too. I saved more lives than I lost, he thought, if only to reassure himself that he’d done some good—that all of this had in fact been worth it. Ren had gone looking for Tye Sirra, and he’d found her in the flaming ruins of the priory and led her and the others out of the Hollows and into the crowded boulevards of the empire’s capital.

“Ren,” said Tye, interrupting his thoughts as she came running up the stairs. “Give me your hand.”

He offered it, absently. He was still thinking about the priory, and the cell where he’d spent his youth.

“You’re squeezing my bones apart.” Tye shook loose his grip almost as quickly as she’d taken it.

Ren hadn’t noticed what his fingers were doing, but his hand felt empty when she pushed it away. His palm was checkered with soot and grease. Dried blood drew circles around the tips of his fingers. “I hadn’t meant—”

“To mash my fingers?”

“Something like that,” he said, too tired to think of any other reply, too out of breath to even form a sentence. “Seven,” he said. “We’ve got seven—is that the number?”

“How in Mithra’s name should I know?” Tye asked, frank as always. Even in their exhaustion, she hadn’t lost an ounce of her fire. Ren was glad to hear it, happy to have his friend back at his side.

They were the first ones out of the Hollows, but not the last.

Kollen Pisk emerged from the shadows. Like some beast born out of darkness, he staggered toward them, hair singed, skin caked in ash, clothes blackened with soot.

“Where in Horu’s eight hells am I?” Kollen asked. “I thought I’d left the fires.”

“There’s no leaving them,” said Tye, “so just get yourself out of the way.”

Adin Fahran was coming up behind Kollen and he looked to be in worse shape. His hands were burned, the skin black and blistering. He waved them in the air, trying in vain to soothe the hurt.

“C’mon, old friend. We’re almost there,” said Ren, glancing warily at the crowds, the city guard. Are they looking for us? he wondered. Do they even know we’re alive?

Lazlo Dank blundered into Ren and Adin, nearly toppling all three of them. Laz was lost, confused, and out of breath. The boy had no shirt. The flames had taken it from him. They’d stolen his hair as well. He was in shock, lost, too baffled to even speak. He was only a child after all. Laz had not yet reached his tenth year, or maybe even his ninth. Ren held Adin with one arm and Laz with the other. He cupped Tye’s shoulder as Carr Bergen lurched over the threshold. He carried Curst Falkirk, the youngest among them. Only six or seven, Curst had the look of death upon him, but when Carr set him down the young boy ran to Adin. They were both Ferens. Perhaps that was why Curst clung to Adin’s leg, huddling there, immovable, as if he’d holed himself up in some tower and planned on never leaving it.

“Seven,” said Ren. “That’s it. Seven.” They were the last survivors of the Priory of Tolemy.

An arrow whistled through the air and Ren’s attention was drawn once more to the crowds. “There’re soldiers,” said Ren. “We need to move.” There was good reason for them to get out of the soldiers’ path. The ransoms were the property of the empire. Only Ren and Adin were freemen. The rest were tributes. They were the emperor’s possessions and those soldiers might be coming for them. If captured, they would be punished, a foot cut off or maybe even a hand. Either way, they’d end up back in a cell, minus a limb or two.

“Go!” Ren cried, but his call was met only with confusion.

“Which way?” Tye asked.

“Away . . . from the flames,” Ren said, still a little shaken, not yet focused. “Oren said the blaze started in the Antechamber of the Ray, which is at the city’s core.”

“Away from the flames?” Kollen asked. “How”—he waved his hand in a circle—“do we know which way that is?”

“The smoke’s everywhere and the soldiers too,” said Carr, stating the obvious and taking a knock on the head from Kollen for doing it.

Curst remained at Adin’s side, Laz paced, pinching his nose to keep out the smoke. “I want to go home,” he chanted, but Ren didn’t know which home he meant. The priory was destroyed and the boy was a long way from his father’s keep in Rachis.

A man in black leather brushed past Ren.

The soldiers had arrived.

“So much for our escape,” said Kollen. “What now?”

Everyone looked to Ren. He was the one who’d fathered this endeavor. Although he had not claimed leadership, the ransoms looked to him for it. Their eyes begged. They pleaded for answers he didn’t have. He was not their leader, but he had led them. It was too late to shirk that duty. He had assumed some tacit responsibility for the group when he led them out of the priory. It was time to see things to their end and find a way out of this city.

A pair of fighting men bolted past them. Who’s at war? Ren studied the approaching soldiers. Who’s doing the chasing and who is the chased? He pulled Tye close to him, taking her out of one soldier’s path just as he sidestepped another. In the priory, he’d always been the one who protected Tye. He knew her secret. She was a young girl hidden among the priory boys. Protecting her was a hard habit to lose.

“I can take care of myself,” she said, pushing him away and nearly stumbling into another soldier. A fourth man appeared. This one wore pale-red armor and there were others at his side, all of them similarly clad.

“What is this?” asked Tye.

“Armies,” said Kollen. “We need to fly.”

“He’s right,” said Ren, “we should—”

A spear tore through Laz’s chest. The boy hit the cobblestones and his body split open like a crumpled gourd, ribs and viscera tangled about the wooden shaft. At the sight of it, at the sheer terror of what stood before them, Tye screwed her eyes shut. Curst buried his face in Adin’s belly, but Ren did not flinch. This is the price of my indecision.

There were six of them now.

Ren wondered if there would soon be five.

The soldiers had arrived, but this time he got a good look at them. Their armor was boiled and black and each chest piece bore the eld-horn symbol. He saw the burnt skin, the long hair, and grizzled beards.

“You’re Harkan.” Ren nearly choked on the words.

A flood of soldiers surrounded him.

“Harkan,” Ren said it again, louder this time.

“We’re not just Harkan,” said one man. “We’re the god’s damned kingsguard.”

The soldier leapt past Ren, pulled the spear from Laz’s chest, and launched it into the smoke. Laz’s whole body stiffened. Mercifully, those were his last movements.

“What are you doing?” Ren asked, but the soldier was already gone. The men in black were forming lines, lifting shields.

Why is the Harkan kingsguard in Solus? Did my father summon them before his death? That was the most likely answer. They’d come to aid one HarkWadi, but had instead found the other, the son instead of the father. They just didn’t know it yet. The men paid him no notice, but he knew these soldiers. They called themselves the black shields, the king’s chosen men. My men, thought Ren.

“These are Harkan soldiers,” he said, shaking Tye, tugging at Kollen’s sleeve. “They can help us.”

“Then make them,” said Tye, “before they cut us to pieces.”

“Or stomp us to death,” Kollen said as he dashed out of one soldier’s path and nearly ran into another.

Ren reached for the eld horn. Perhaps, if he held it up, the soldiers would recognize it. The horn was a symbol of the king of the Harkans, but he hadn’t carved it into a proper ceremonial blade. It looked like nothing more than a mud-slathered stick. Ren knew as much, so he unsheathed his father’s dagger. Every king wielded the sacred blade, and he wore the silver ring of his father. He hoped the soldiers would take notice, but the smoke made it difficult for Ren to see his own hand, let alone the ring that sat upon it.

“How do I get their attention?” Ren asked, eyes darting from Tye to Carr to Kollen and back.

No one answered, but they did act. Tye shouted in one man’s face. Carr tried it and the soldier jabbed him with an elbow, knocking the boy to his knees. The Harkans were engaged in some sort of retreat.

“In a moment they’ll be gone,” Tye cried, frantic.

“Some of you must know me!” Ren poured the last of his strength into his voice. “Were any of you in the Shambles or on the road to Harwen?” On that same road, Arko, the former king, named Ren the heir of Harkana and gave him the knife. A number of soldiers in the kingsguard saw him do it, so Ren raised the blade a bit higher. “Do any of you know the king’s iron? Do you recognize me?” He said it again, but no one stopped.

“For fuck’s sake, you fools,” cried Kollen, “don’t any of you know your king’s son?” Kollen planted his shoulder squarely in the center of a Harkan soldier’s chest plate. Ren followed suit, throwing himself at one of the men, forcing him to stop. Tye tried it out, but was knocked to the ground. Her head hit the stones, but her eyes were still open, lips curled into a blood-soaked grin.

“I’m the son of Arko,” Ren said.

The soldiers were at last forced to listen to him. The black shields had nothing else to do. Ren and the other ransoms had blocked half the street. In a moment, he guessed the soldiers would either lop off his head or raise him up on their shoulders—either seemed likely.

“Out of our way,” said the man who’d ripped the spear from Laz’s chest. His sword teetered a hair’s width from Ren’s chin.

Perhaps I will lose my head.

But Ren was defiant, he would not budge and neither would Kollen. Tye had gotten to her feet and was bustling about, taking the younger ransoms and making certain they weren’t lost among the soldiers.

“Look at his face,” Kollen shouted. “Some of you must know it!”

“I am the son of Arko,” Ren cried out. “I met him in the Shambles and on the road to Harwen!”

There were more men, swarming all around them and more soldiers in the distance, but none of them recognized him. Honestly, he feared only a handful could see his face. He pushed the sword aside and delved into the crowd, the dagger held high. “Does anyone know this blade? Was anyone there when I met the king?”

A scuffle emerged, one man pushing his way through the others, moving toward Ren at a furious pace. He ripped the dagger from Ren’s grip.

“Where did you get this?” he asked.

“My father, he—”

“He what? He gave you this?” the man asked, but he did not wait for an answer. “Does anyone know this boy?” he shouted in the stentorian tones of a captain. “Has anyone seen him? Were you there with our king?” Clearly the man had heard Ren’s words and was testing them.

There were a few shrugs. More than one man stood on his toes to get a better look at Ren, but there was smoke in the air and the views were all cut through with spearheads and the tips of shields. The men simply could not see him, not enough of him at least. Perhaps, given a moment, one of them might have recognized him, but time was in short supply.

“I know this blade,” said the man who’d taken the dagger from Ren, “but I don’t know you. None of my men know you. I’m Gneuss, the king’s second and the highest-ranking captain in the company. We’re the black shields, and you’re either the heir of Harkana or some damned thief.”

The captain had only one eye. A mound of scar tissue sheathed the other one, and he wore no patch to conceal the injury. Curious, Ren thought. This is a hard man. A bit of iron would not convince him that Ren was heir to the kingdom of Harkana. He opened his mouth to speak, but a pair of arrows fluttered past Gneuss’s helm, truncating their conversation. The captain shouted orders to the men, urging them to march. They formed ranks, but their escape was once more arrested.

“I’m Edric. You all know me.” A young man blocked the way. “I saw that boy in the Shambles. I kneeled to him. Yes, and I was there when the king slipped that dagger in his hand.” Edric was tall and his armor was torn. He was a bit thin for a fighting man, but he still had the look of a Harkan, his skin burnt like leather, teeth ground smooth, eyes glistening.

His words drew others.

“Are you certain?” Gneuss asked, his one eye looking askance. For him, this was all a distraction, a hiccup in his escape plan, or so Ren guessed. He could see the distrust in Gneuss’s eye, hear the irritation in his voice.

Edric took Ren by the chin, turning his head right and left, lifting it. “It’s the same damned boy. Floppy hair and big dumb eyes, built just like the father. He’s the one.”

Gneuss swallowed, clearly disappointed at the man’s conclusion. “Too bad.”

“Why?” Ren asked.

“Look,” said Gneuss.

Soldiers emerged from the smoke, thousands upon thousands of them. Men with tall shields brandished spears of improbable length. On rooftops, archers nocked arrows. Everywhere, men readied themselves for the attack.

Gneuss patted Ren’s shoulder. “See what I mean, son of Arko? You’ve found your men and now you’re going to die with them.”

Copyright © Michael Johnston 2021

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