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Excerpt: A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

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“[An] all around brilliant space opera, I absolutely love it.”—Ann Leckie, on A Memory Called Empire

A Desolation Called Peace is the spectacular space opera sequel to Arkady Martine’s genre-reinventing, Hugo Award-winning debut, A Memory Called Empire.

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of A Desolation Called Peace, on sale 03/02/2021.


Chapter 2

[. . .] and of course your reputation precedes you, like an earthquake precedes a city-drowning wave; the tremors of your arrival are already setting the Ministry to vibration asif we were all made of tlini-strings and you were the bow. Of course we regret the absence of former Minister Nine Propulsion—her guidance was a warm silk glove that has been taken off the Palms now that she has retired (and so abruptly!)—but I, for one, look forward to having meetings with a person who was the first successful Governor of Nakhar System. We have work to do. I remain, in anticipation [. . .] —letter from Third Undersecretary Eleven Laurel of the Ministry of War to the incoming Minister of War, Three Azimuth, dated to the 21st day, 1st year, in the 1st indiction of the Emperor of All Teixcalaan Nineteen Adze

Letters to the dead are poor practice; I’d do myself a service if I merely kept a journal like half the Emperors who have slept in this bed before me. But since when have you known me to do service to myself? And at least you are dead—or it is simplest to think of you so now—I have all the stars in my hands, Yskandr, and it is terribly easy to let them slip through a finger-width gap. Especially when some of them are going dark, eaten up by your successor’s soconvenient alien threat. You slept here more often than I did—more often than I do, if we count sleeping and not nights. How often did you wish for the convenience of narrative to bow to your whims? More or less often than our Emperor, awake beside you?

—the private notes of Her Brilliance the Emperor Nineteen Adze, undated, locked, and encrypted

Knifepoint’s captain, Thirty Wax-Seal, clutched his cup of coffee like it was the only thing keeping his hands from shaking. He was a nasty shade of grey all through: Nine Hibiscus thought of oatmeal congealed in the bottom of a pan, that leftoverscrim of mealy grey-white that needed to be scraped off.

“It’s not language,” he said, for the second time; that had been his opening statement to her, when she’d gotten him retrieved safely from his ship and had him brought to her smaller conference room to be debriefed. “I had Fourteen Spike with me, she speaks five languages—that’s why I took her, in case we got to overhear something—and it was nothing like a language to her. It’s not got—parsable phonemes, she said. That was before the enemy ship came out of nowhere and started chasing us. She didn’t get much farther than we can’t make noises like that.”

I am not equipped to run a first-contact scenario, Nine Hibiscus thought, especially when the things being contacted spit ship-dissolving fluids at my people and don’t make understandable noises. She was a soldier. A strategically minded one, with the vast punch of Teixcalaanli power behind her, but a soldier nonetheless. First contact was for diplomats and people who got into epic poems.

“If it’s not language,” she said, sipping at her coffee—Thirty Wax-Seal drank a bit of his, mirroring, and she was glad of it—“how did you know it was communication at all?”

“Because it didn’t start until we showed up. And it was responsive, yaotlek—I mean, when I took Knifepoint in closer, the transmission shifted, it sounded different, and when I backed us away, it changed again, and when I tried to slide around the far side of that dwarf sun and get eyes on what happened to our colony on Peloa-2, it shrieked at us and then that ring-ship was right there—”

The edge of hysteria in Thirty Wax-Seal’s voice was unsettling. It wasn’t like him; he wouldn’t be a scout-gunner captain if he was prone to the horrors. The ring-ship had been awful, and its spit had been worse, but still. It wouldn’t do.

“You got back, Captain,” Nine Hibiscus said, even, reassuring. “You came home to us and you brought us an intercepted communiqué and we know approximately eight new things about these people than we did before today.” She was using Twenty Cicada’s language, but this captain didn’t know that. Didn’t know how rattled she was, and never would, if she was careful. “You did very well. You can stand down awaiting further orders, unless there’s anything else I should know.”

“No, sir. The recording is with Chief Communications Officer Two Foam, if you want to listen to it. But there’s nothing else specific. We didn’t get close enough to Peloa-2 for actionable intelligence.”

Nine Hibiscus wanted to listen to the recording very badly, and the idea made her skin crawl at the same time. But she had another hour and three-quarters before Sixteen Moonrise was scheduled to come aboard and discuss strategy—discuss strategy, such thin cover for a meeting meant to provide Nine Hibiscus with some leverage against Sixteen Moonrise’s extremely untimely episode of Fleet intrigue—and she would like all the information she could get. Whether it was language or not.


Beneath the imperial palace there was a network of passages, secret and small. There was a poem for them, a good one with a walking rhythm to it. It went, as many roots in the ground as blooms into the sky / daylight servants of the empire gather palace flowers / justice, science, information, war / but the roots that feed us are invisible and strong. Eight Antidote liked two parts of that poem best: how his feet hit the tunnel tilework floor right along with the pulse of roots in the ground and blooms in the sky—and also how he wasn’t a daylight servant at all. Daylight servants got palace flowers. Alone in the tunnels, Eight Antidote, sole heir to Teixcalaan entire (just recently sole heir, which meant something, probably, something about how he needed to think about himself), didn’t need flowers. He was down in the dirt, where silent things grew strong.

He’d been in the tunnels tens of times, even before the Emperor—not the current Emperor, but his ancestorthe-Emperor, it was important also to clarify these things in his mind—had whisked him into them during the insurrection right before he died. He’d been in the tunnels enough to be beginning to know them, their secret ways, their listening-posts and open spy-eyes. His ancestor-the-Emperor had shown him, and had let him . . . go into them.

It was one of the only things Six Direction had let him do, like it was a prize, a passcode between the two of them, an indulgence. Eight Antidote wondered a lot about why. He’d wondered that even before his ancestor had killed himself in a sun temple for the glory of Teixcalaan.

Here the tunnel narrowed, dipped left—it smelled of petrichor, rain and the underneath parts of flowers. Eight Antidote trailed his fingers against the wall where it was damp with condensation, and imagined a small Six Direction, just his own eleven-years-old size, walking around under the palace, exactly like this. He wouldn’t have needed to duck through the narrow parts either, not when he was eleven. If there were physical differences between Eight Antidote and his ancestor, he didn’t know about them yet. Ninety percent was a lot of clone to be, physically. Also he’d seen holos.

But Six Direction hadn’t grown up in the palace, had he. All those holos came from some planet with grass on it, a kid with his own face a hundred years ago, green-grey plants up to his narrow chest. Six Direction’d never been down here at all, until later.

After the narrow part there were some stairs, a long climb in the dim. He knew the way now, even lightless; in the past few weeks he’d come up these stairs seven times. Today was eight. He was too old to believe in numerical luck anymore, but eights felt right even so: eight times for luck particular to him. (Particular to him and to everyone else who shared the glyph he used for the number-sign in his name, so also lucky for the Minister of the Judiciary, who was technically his legal parent since she’d adopted him, and also tens of thousands of other kids, and this was why he didn’t believe in numerical luck anymore, not since he’d thought about it properly.) There was a door in the ceiling, at the end of these stairs. Eight Antidote knocked on it, and it opened up for him, and then he was in the basement of the Ministry of War.

Eleven Laurel was waiting for him there. He was tall, and the carved planes of his face were very dark, with deep wrinkles around the eyes and the mouth. He was wearing a Ministry of War uniform, which wasn’t the same thing as a legionary uniform, but almost was: not a suit like every other ministry, but breeches and a gunmetal-grey jacket that came down to the middle of his thighs and buttoned double-breasted with small flat gold buttons. He never seemed to mind sitting in the Ministry basement dust, waiting for Eight Antidote to show up. He just stood, brushed the dust off his pants unceremoniously, and said, “And how are you this afternoon, Cure?”

There were a couple of things Eight Antidote had learned from his ancestor-the-Emperor, and a couple more from Nineteen Adze, who was Emperor now and had promised to take care of him even if it killed her. The biggest one was probably don’t trust anyone who makes you feel good without knowing why they want you to feel that way.

But Eleven Laurel, who in addition to waiting for him in basements once a week, and teaching him how to run a cartograph strategy table and shoot an energy-pulse pistol, was the Undersecretary of the Third Palm, one of six undersecretaries who only answered to the Minister of War—Eleven Laurel called him Cure, not Your Excellency or Imperial Associate Eight Antidote or anything else, and Eight Antidote really truly loved it. At least, he thought, he knew he loved it. Which had to help. He loved it, Eleven Laurel definitely wanted him to, and this might be a bad thing. But right now, right now it wasn’t. Right now he widened his eyes in a grin, and scrambled out of the hole in the floor, and said,“I solved it, you know. Last week’s exercise. The one about Kauraan System.”

“Did you,” Eleven Laurel said. “All right. Show me what you think the Fleet Captain at Kauraan did to win that battle, and what it tells you about her. We can go to the cartograph straight off.”

It bothered Eight Antidote, a faint kind of upset like a hum off in one corner of his mind, that Eleven Laurel, a man who had served in twenty campaigns and seen more blood-and star-drenched planets than he could easily imagine, spent an afternoon once a week entertaining an eleven-year-old kid who had snuck in through the basement. There were extenuating circumstances, of course: the obvious one being that Eight Antidote was likely to be Emperor of all Teixcalaan at some point, much more likely to be so than before Six Direction had sacrificed himself and named a sole successor in the process. The Third Undersecretary to the Minister of War, who might see himself Minister in that hypothetical future, would have a lot of reasons to amuse that kid.

Also it wasn’t like where they were was a secret. On the way to the cartograph room—one of a whole lot of them, the Ministry of War was a tactician’s garden, Nineteen Adze had said that to him and it stuck in his head—Eight Antidote and Eleven Laurel passed in full view of at least ten soldiers, four administrative staff, one floor cleaner, and five City-eye cameras that Eight Antidote could spot. (That probably meant there were five more he hadn’t spotted on this route.) He wasn’t escaping. He wasn’t doing anything secret, and neither was Eleven Laurel.

Nineteen Adze—Her Brilliance, the Emperor—had said the Ministry of War is a tactician’s garden right after Eight Antidote had come back from his first trip through the tunnels. She’d come into his rooms, alone, and showed him the holograph-recording the City had made of him, moving through the Ministry like a bright bird in a net of eyes. He’d asked her if she’d prefer he not go, and she had said that line about tacticians and gardens and told him to do precisely what he liked, and left again.

Sometimes Eight Antidote wondered if anyone would ever trust him enough to not show him that they were watching him all the time.

The cartograph room made him happy anyway, happy enough to shove the whole mess of why away for a little while: Eleven Laurel called up Kauraan System with a few sweeps of his hands, last week’s exercise displayed in slow-rotating lights hung in the middle of the air. Every ship in the Fleet had one of these tables, forsolving problems before they happened. The problem here: How did the Fleet Captain at Kauraan use only one ship to quell an uprising before it could spread past the southern tip of one continent? And the constraints: Less than five thousand Kauraani casualties, less than two hundred Teixcalaanli ones; she didn’t call for help; she had no unusual weaponry not in the standard manifest for a ship of that size; she was outnumbered forty-to-one; and the Kauraani rebels had seized the spaceport and were using Teixcalaanli ships against her. Solve it.

Eight Antidote loved the constraints best of all. Delimiters. This happened, so it must be possible. Solve it.

“Go on,” said Eleven Laurel. “Show me what Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus of the Tenth did here.”

Eight Antidote came up to the table. He called it to his attention with small movements of his eye behind his cloudhook, and carefully allowed the simulation to run forward without making any changes to what was, now, functionally his Fleet: he stood in for Nine Hibiscus. And like he was almost, almost sure she had done, he didn’t send any of her Shards down toward Kauraan, not even when the Kauraani rebels came floating up off the planet in theirstolen Teixcalaanliships. He paused it right asthe stolen fleet entered firing range—between all of them, they could have destroyed Nine Hibiscus’s Weight for the Wheel, even though it was an Eternal-class flagship.

“There’s only one solution I can find,” he said, not looking at Eleven Laurel—imagining, instead, that he was a War Minister or a Fleet Captain himself, talking to his people, his troops. “Nobody fired at all.”

“How would that have happened?” asked Eleven Laurel, which wasn’t no, you’re wrong. Eight Antidote didn’t smile, but he felt very bright, very focused—like flying would feel, like being a Shard pilot, tumbling on a vector of his own choosing.

“On Kauraan,” he went on, “the rebellion was small. Just one faction of one ethnic group. But they were smart enough to know that we keep a garrison on that southern continent. A lot of ships. Enough to kill an Eternal if they had to. The rebels were very smart when they captured the port first instead of going after the provincial governor’s offices. But there really weren’t a whole lot of them, I think. Not enough to not—take allies where they could get them.”

“Not implausible thinking.” Eleven Laurel was paying out the rope, Eight Antidote thought, giving him just enough space to get in trouble, but he wasn’t going to get in trouble, because he was right.

“So the Fleet Captain, Nine Hibiscus. She’s got this reputation—her soldiers would do anything for her. And it’s not just the every-captain’s-soldiers-love-them thing, it’s not just poetry. I looked up her prior campaigns, and her people will do a lot of, um. Dumb shit, in my opinion, Undersecretary. If she asked them to.”

Eleven Laurel made a noise that might have been laughter a few decades back. “You did look her up. I’d say dumb shit is a fair description, yes. Go on. What sort of dumb shit did she get her soldiers to do at Kauraan?”

“If she’d sent some of them down to infiltrate the rebels,” said Eight Antidote, “and she trusted that they’d succeeded—then I think she let the rebelstake the stolen ships up into space, this close to her ship, and asked her own people to trust that they wouldn’t fire while the coup went down and the rebels got killed on the same ships they’d stolen. Nobody fired at all. They didn’t need to. She’d already won.”

The cartograph went blank. Eight Antidote blinked, afterimages of Weight for the Wheel and Kauraan’s sun bright across the inside of his eyelids.

“That’s very close to right,” said Eleven Laurel. “Well done.”

“What did I miss?” Eight Antidote asked, because he couldn’t help it. Very close wasn’t good enough. Not when he’d come up with they never fired in the middle of the night like a sunburst explosion of I know it, I see it. Woken up with it on his tongue like a bursting fruit.

“Infiltration is part of Fleet counterinsurgency protocols, yes,” Eleven Laurel said. “But who should be in charge of it? Who makes that call, Cure, to send our people to lie for us?”

“Not a Fleet Captain?”

“The Minister of War, or the Undersecretary of the Third Palm.”

“You?” The Third Palm—for the East direction, for—he struggled, reached for it. Palace-East was where Nineteen Adze had lived before she was Emperor, where ambassadors stayed, where the Information Ministry was. But the Information Ministry was civilians.

Eleven Laurel was waiting for him.

Eight Antidote hated that; it made him feel like he was being indulged. He said, “You. Third Palm, because the Third Palm is what’s left of the military part of Information.”

“Quite. Me, and the rump end of the separation of our spies from our soldiers. The Third of Six Outreaching Palms: intelligence, counterintelligence, and Fleet internal affairs. Now, Cure—did our Nine Hibiscus receive this authorization from me, or from Minister Three Azimuth—ah, no, it was still Minister Nine Propulsion then, but even so?”

“. . . No,” Eight Antidote said. “She didn’t have authorization to give that order. And her people did it anyway.”

“You’re going to make a hell of a tactician when you’re the rest of the way grown,” Eleven Laurel said, and Eight Antidote felt warm all through. He ducked his head, not wanting to blush.“That’s right. She didn’t get permission, she just decided, and none of her people asked a single question about it.”

The blankness of the cartograph table felt abruptly heavy, threatening. “Where is she now?” Eight Antidote asked. “What happened to her after Kauraan?”

“Oh, we made her yaotlek,” Eleven Laurel said, as if this was something that happened every day, “and sent her out to die bravely for Teixcalaan and Her Brilliance the Emperor as quickly as possible.”

Copyright © Arkady Martine 2021

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