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Excerpt: The Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley

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Brian Staveley, author of The Emperor’s Blades, gives readers the first book in a new epic fantasy trilogy based in the world of his popular series the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, The Empire’s Ruin.

The Annurian Empire is disintegrating. The advantages it used for millennia have fallen to ruin. The ranks of the Kettral have been decimated from within, and the kenta gates, granting instantaneous travel across the vast lands of the empire, can no longer be used.

In order to save the empire, one of the surviving Kettral must voyage beyond the edge of the known world through a land that warps and poisons all living things to find the nesting ground of the giant war hawks. Meanwhile, a monk turned con-artist may hold the secret to the kenta gates.

But time is running out. Deep within the southern reaches of the empire and ancient god-like race has begun to stir.

What they discover will change them and the Annurian Empire forever. If they can survive.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley, on sale 07/06/2021. 


1

The bridge was empty.

On the first pass, they flew in fast and slow and silent over the wide canal, a smear of darkness across the stars, winging just over the heads of the rotting wooden statues at the top of the Grog Market bridge. Gwenna Sharpe kept her eyes fixed on that bridge, scanning the shadows for her Wingmates— Talal and Qora— who should have been waiting, poised for the extract, just as they’d planned.

“Son of a bitch,” she muttered. “Jak, take us around again.”

It was supposed to be straightforward. The rain, which had been pelting the city for weeks, flooding the canals, drowning the first floors of the wooden buildings, had broken, if only briefly. For once she could fly without sliding around on the talons, without the fat, warm drops splattering her face, without curtains of rain hazing everything more than a few paces away. Of course, shit went wrong, even on clear nights: a roadblock, an unexpected patrol, some kid awake well past her bedtime who happened to glance out her window and spot two figures— all in black, twin swords sheathed across their backs— and call out to her parents. . . . The world was a mess, even in the best of times, and these were hardly the best of times. A team might be late to an extract for a thousand reasons, and so Gwenna didn’t start really worrying until the fourth or fifth pass. By the twelfth she was ready to set the bird down right in the middle of the fucking bridge and go bashing in doors.

“Another go- round?” Quick Jak asked.

The flier sat up on the back of the massive bird, strapped into his saddle, while Gwenna half stood, half hung below, her boots on one of the kettral’s extended talons, her harness clipped in high on the creature’s leg. The position left her hands free to use a bow or a sword, to light and lob explosives if necessary, to grab a wounded Wingmate and hold on as the bird carried them up and out of danger. Except that there was no one to kill, no one to grab.

She took a deep breath— regretting it the moment the smell of Dombâng, all dead fish, rot, smoke, burned sweet-reed, sewage—clogged her nostrils, and forced herself to go slow, to think the thing through.

“No,” she replied after a moment. “Take us up.”

“Spiral search?”

Anyone else on Gwenna’s perch, anyone not Kettral, wouldn’t have been able to hear him. She remembered flying on the talons as a cadet, how the bird’s beating wings and the skirling wind scrubbed away all sound. That had been years earlier, though, before her Trial, before she drank from Hull’s sacred egg and became stranger, sharper, stronger. Now she could make out his voice just fine, though it sounded far-off and hollow. She could smell him, too, his sweat woven through the miasma from the city below, the acrid soot smeared over his pale face, the damp leather of his saddle; and beneath all that, the too-sweet thread of his worry, which only served to remind her of her own.

“Yeah,” she replied. “Tight spiral. But lean west with it.”

A moment later, she felt the bird bank.

Over on the other talon, Annick Frencha shifted her posture, twisting casually in her harness as they swung around. If the woman was worried, Gwenna couldn’t smell it. She sure as shit couldn’t see any signs of concern. The sniper hung in her harness easily as a child leaning back in a swing, one hand holding the stave of her bow, the other keeping an arrow nocked to the string. Annick reminded Gwenna of the bow itself—all the slender strength, all the killing—and Annick was nothing if not a killer—folded into a vigilant stillness. She never cheered when her arrows punched home, never pumped her fist, never smiled. While whoever she’d shot was stumbling around, pawing at the baffling shaft, lost in the last moments of dying, Annick was already gone, nocking another arrow, blue eyes scouring the world for something else worth ending. Gwenna had been training, flying, fighting, almost dying alongside the soldier for more than a decade. They’d pissed in the same pots, drunk from the same skins, bled all over the same scraps of ground, and she still wasn’t entirely used to the other woman’s poise. Just a glance at Annick reminded her of everything she herself was not—not relaxed enough, not calculating enough, not disciplined enough, not cool enough, not fucking ready enough. . . .

No surprise that her mop of red hair chose that very moment to come untied. It whipped at her face, tangled in front of her eyes, made itself an unnecessary distraction. Annick didn’t have hair—every week she doused her head in a bucket, then shaved it down to the scalp with her belt knife. It made her look like a fifteen-year-old boy, except Gwenna had never met any fifteen year-old boys who could split a reed with an arrow at a hundred paces.

“If the extract’s compromised,” the sniper said, “they’ll go to ground, make for the secondary tomorrow night.”

“Did that extract look compromised to you?”

The sniper kept her eyes on the city below. “There’s a lot we can’t see from the air.”

“Yeah. Two things in particular: Talal and fucking Qora.”

“They know the protocol. They’ll lie low. Hit the secondary tomorrow.”

Gwenna spat into the darkness, watched the wind shred it. “If they’re not captured.”

“There’s no reason to believe they’re captured.”

“There’s no reason to believe they’re not.”

“They’re Kettral.”

“Kettral die just like everyone else if you take a sharp piece of steel, put it inside them, and twist it around.”

Annick gave an incremental shake of her head. “You want to fly search spirals all night? Dombâng’s a big city. Tough to pick two people out of fifty thousand, especially if you don’t know where to look.”

She was right. Fucking, obviously.

When it came to protocol, to doing things by the book, to making the cold, rational call, Annick was never, ever not right. Somehow, though— and Gwenna still spent sleepless nights trying to reason this one out—it was Gwenna herself, not Annick, who had ended up in charge of the Wing. Which meant it was Gwenna, not Annick, who had two missing soldiers, two friends, lost somewhere in the open sewer of a city sprawled out below.

Not that Dombâng looked like a sewer from the air. From the air all you could see was the spangling of red lanterns and cook fires, all those warm human lights and—tonight at least—the greater, cooler brilliance of the stars reflected in the hundreds of canals. A hundred paces up, the warm wet breeze absolved the city of its stench. You could relax a little, flying patrol. No one was likely to stab you while you stood on the talons of the soaring bird. No one was likely to bash you over the head so that they could offer you, alive and squirming, to one of their bloodthirsty gods. At altitude, Gwenna could barely smell the terror soaking the streets and homes below.

Unfortunately, she had two Kettral who weren’t in the air.

She studied the topography. Jak had them turning slow circles above the tidy wooden tenements of North Point. One block looked more or less like another—tiled roofs, narrow balconies cantilevered out over the canals, each street crooked as a broken leg—except for the dark, ugly scar where Intarra’s temple had been torn down by the insurgents. No one had bothered to build anything in its place. They hadn’t even cleared away the wreckage.

“Where did you go, Talal?” she muttered to herself. “Where are you hiding?”

No. That was the wrong question.

If the two Kettral were hiding, then they were fine. Sure, Qora had a tendency to stab first and ask questions later, but she was good with her blades— more than good—and Talal would keep her from opening any throats that were better left closed. He’d certainly saved Gwenna from her own idiocy enough times. If they’d gone to ground, as Annick kept saying, then there was nothing to worry about. Which meant Gwenna didn’t need to be flying spiral searches or grid searches or any other kind of searches over the entire ’Kentkissing city. The danger was that they’d been captured, and if they’d been captured, there were only two places Dombâng’s insurgents would bring them. The Shipwreck was more secure, but that would mean going all the way south over the Spring Bridge, through Goc My’s, then doubling back north to Dead Horse Island; a long march with dangerous prisoners in tow. Which left . . .

“Jak,” Gwenna said. “Take us to the Baths. Come in from the southeast.”

“Against orders,” Annick observed. She didn’t sound particularly bothered by the fact.

Gwenna shook her head. “Just fucking Frome.”

“He is the admiral in command of the Dombângan theater.”

“Dombâng isn’t a theater, it’s a cesspool. And Frome’s understanding of the place is just slightly limited by the fact that he never leaves the ’Kentkissing ship.”

“Nevertheless, the risk to the mission—”

“The risk is for shit. There’s one kettral left in the world, and we’re on it.”

“That’s why we have the orders. If the bird is taken—”

“We’re a hundred paces up.”

“We can’t rescue anyone from a hundred paces up.”

“So then we’ll descend.”

“Putting the bird in danger.”

“Holy fucking Hull, Annick. It’s all danger. The job is danger.” She swept a hand out over the ruddy lights of Dombâng. “Half the people in this city would gut us on sight, and the other half would only hold back in order to feed us to their blood-hungry so-called gods. If we wanted to be safe, we would have taken up brewing or farming or fucking haberdashery.”

Annick raised an eyebrow. “Haberdashery?”

“Hat-making. Making hats.” Gwenna clenched her jaw, forced herself to shut up. Her anger was just worry. Which didn’t make it any less angry. “Look,” she went on after a pause. “You’re probably right. Talal and Qora are probably lounging in an attic somewhere getting drunk on some local asshole’s stash of quey. We’ll pick them up tomorrow and I’ll feel like an idiot for keeping us out here. Fine. It won’t be the first time.

“But if they have been captured, I want to know it before they’re hauled off to the Baths and we never see them again.”

“The protocol—”

“Was cooked up by some bureaucrats back in the capital whose idea of ‘unacceptable risk’ is taking a shit when there’s no silk to wipe with.”

“Not bureaucrats. The Emperor.”

Gwenna shook her head. “The Emperor has amazing eyes and weird scars and an unnecessarily large tower, but she’s never been on a bird. She knows fuck-all about flying, fuck-all about combat, fuck-all about Dombâng. She’s just scared she’s going to lose her last kettral, which is why she has Frome halfway up my ass about it all the time.”

The sniper shrugged. “Your Wing, your call.”

Gwenna blew out a long, ragged breath. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d ignored orders from Admiral Frome. The man was all brass buttons and waxed mustache. Sure, the mission in Dombâng had probably been doomed from the start, but she didn’t intend to seal its fate by listening to that fool. She certainly didn’t intend to risk the lives of her soldiers for him.

She turned her attention back to the city below.

“Bring us down, Jak, just over the highest houses.”

Dombâng was a labyrinth of alleyways, bridges, causeways, docks, and canals—as though the city had been dropped from on high and shattered on the murky surface of the delta—but she’d memorized the map before they arrived, and it was easy to pick out the dark, silted-up expanse of Old Harbor; the mudflats were packed with the shadowy hulks of rotting ships, and there, at the center, the massive, ramshackle Arena where the Dombângans bled for their gods. A few torches burned in the prison yards built up around it. She could just make out the shapes of a half-dozen Worthy up late, training to slice one another into meat.

From Old Harbor, Jak took them northwest past Goc My’s plaza with its blank-eyed stone statue, northwest over the old, pillared mansions of First Island, over the sweet-reed barges swinging at anchor in the confluence, and on toward the glittering lights and sweeping rooflines of the Gold Bank. Covering the same route on foot or in one of the swallowtail boats would have been both tedious and dangerous; with the kettral it was a casual matter of relaxing into the harness while the city swept by beneath.

Not that Gwenna was able to relax. Her fingers kept finding their way to the munitions strapped at her belt, testing the wicks, checking to be sure that all the strikers were there. Her eyes ached from the strain of trying to see into every corner, every shadow.

According to her briefings, Dombâng came alive at night, the whole city unfolding into eating and drinking, dancing and lanterns and music. Evidently whoever wrote the briefing had put it together before the revolution chucked everything straight into the shitter.

Dombâng had been a late and reluctant addition to the Annurian Empire, and when the empire started crumbling, Dombâng one of the first cities to reassert its independence. Most of the population, at least, had asserted that independence. Plenty of people had been less than enthusiastic about returning to the old ways, the indigenous religion. Unsurprising, really, given that religion’s insistence on dragging people out into the delta and leaving them as a sacrifice for the gods. After two hundred years of Annurian rule, plenty of folks had come to enjoy things like trials, and religious tolerance, and trade with the outside world.

All of which meant that Dombâng had fought two wars—one against the Annurian Empire, and one against itself. The first had been bloody enough, but the latter pitted sisters against sisters, children against parents, friends against old friends. That, of course, had been five years earlier. Now, the Annurians were dead—all the soldiers and bureaucrats stationed in the city— along with most of the Dombângans of Annurian descent—merchants with the wrong names, builders with the wrong hair, fishers with the wrong accent or eyes. Some had been burned in their beds, some slaughtered in the Arena, but most were bound and bled, then left in the delta for the gods. Gwenna had never seen those gods, but she’d come across plenty of crocs and snakes and jaguars. The Shirvian delta provided enough ways to die without relying on the divine. Some of the most vicious executions were reserved for the native Dombângans who had dared support the empire—flayings, exposure, painful deaths by serpent or spider. Even five years later, the wounds of the conflict hadn’t knit shut. Most people didn’t leave their homes at night. Not alone. Not without steel.

Which made scanning the streets and waterways a lot easier. Gwenna was able to check whole plazas at a glance. Her vision, even at night, was owl-keen. From fifty paces up she could make out clothing, faces, the hilts of half-hidden blades. Not for nothing did the Kettral worship Hull, god of the darkness.

A knot of revelers was making its unsteady way through the alleys of the Web. She had Jak double back to check a barge moving west up Cao’s Canal. A group of Greenshirts patrolled First Island. No sign of Talal; no sign of Qora.

“Well, fuck,” she said, settling deeper into her harness. “Looks like they went to ground after all.”

Annick didn’t respond. Anyone else might have looked smug or relieved. The sniper didn’t appear to be either. She didn’t take her eyes off the alleys below.

“Jak,” Gwenna said. “Let’s check the Baths, then get out of here.”

She could just make out the building in the distance, shouldering its way above the other rooftops.

Before the high priests came up with the insane idea to build the Arena, the Purple Baths had been the largest structure in Dombâng—a massive, luxurious, redwood bathhouse thirty paces high and more than a hundred long, sheltering dozens of pools; some intimate, others large enough to float half a dozen boats. For more than a century, it had been the gathering place for the city’s rich and powerful, a sanctuary of cool waters and warm sighs. Not anymore. During the Twelve-Day War, the insurgents had seized it and turned it into a military building: part barracks, part training facility, part prison. Some of the drained pools served as sparring arenas, others—their tops covered over with steel grates—cells for the condemned.

Gwenna would have preferred to blow the place wide open when she first showed up, but there was some concern back in the capital that any largescale, obvious imperial intervention would only alienate the dwindling portion of the populace still torn between the loyalists and the insurgents. So, since arriving in the city, she and her Wing had been working mostly in the shadows—poisoning and sabotaging and assassinating people from rooftops, laying the subtlest finger on the scales in the hope of tipping them back in Annur’s favor. The work suited Annick and Talal just fine; it was the kind of thing that snipers and leaches thrived on. Unfortunately, Gwenna wasn’t a sniper or a leach. She’d come up through demolitions, and more and more she was starting to think that the only way to deal with Dombâng might be to burn the whole ’Kent-kissing place to the waterline.

Fire—the universal solution.

The soldiers occupying the Baths had made a start on the destruction. All the buildings within a hundred paces had been torn down, wooden frames hacked into firewood, that firewood fed into the huge iron braziers that burned on every side of the massive building. It wasn’t the worst defensive position Gwenna had ever seen. Lots of light, even at night. Lots of sentries. Of course, the sentries were all standing inside the ring of fires, destroying what little night vision they had. It was stupid, but then, most people were stupid.

Jak circled the bird around the whole place once, twice, three times. Gwenna studied the soldiers below. If the Greenshirts had captured two of the Kettral, the men and women would have been tense, excited, frightened. Instead, they looked half-asleep at their posts, most of them gazing blankly out into the middle distance, dulled by the long night’s watch, too fire-blind to notice the huge, manslaughtering hawk turning lazy gyres above them.

“Hold the position, Jak,” she said. “We’ll loop here a little while longer, make sure these assholes don’t show up with our friends, then head for the ship.”

Slowly, as the bird banked, she relaxed back into her harness. After more than a decade flying, she’d come to enjoy the motion—the gentle rocking, the slow, smooth beat of the wings. The streets of Dombâng were sticky, hot, miserable, but a hundred paces up the warm breeze feathering her hair felt good. It felt good, too, to be wrong. Talal would rib her about it back at the ship, of course. I appreciate the thought, he’d say, but you worry too much. She’d tell him the next time he got lost he could go fuck himself. They’d drink a beer, shoot the shit awhile, and that would be that. Another death dodged, another day to wake up and keep fighting.

“All right,” she called up finally. “Get us out of here. I want to have time to close my eyes before coming back to pick up these two idiots.”

“Sure thing,” the flier replied.

Even as he spoke the words, however, the warm southern air turned cold over Gwenna’s skin. Her flesh prickled.

“Hold on,” she said, then glanced over at the sniper. “Annick, do you . . .” Then trailed off.

Annick raised an eyebrow, but didn’t respond.

Gwenna leashed her suddenly pounding heart, marshaled her attention. She recognized this feeling—half readiness, half dread. She’d had it hundreds of times since she drank from Hull’s egg. It was a way of knowing, an apprehension bred in the body itself, independent of all the mind’s clever methods.

“Hold the position.”

She closed her eyes, tried to disentangle the webs of scent and sound, the uncountable strands that made up the world. There was the stench of the outhouses draining straight into the canals, the odor of unwashed bodies, the moldy reek of cloth too long wet, the clean smell of fresh-sawn wood, bright and resinous. She could half follow individual conversations, the voices murmuring in their hundreds and thousands—two men arguing about a fire, a woman hissing something vicious, a commander upbraiding the sentries, and there, teetering on the very edge of her hearing: cursing. Furious, cat-angry, murderous cursing.

“. . . will cut open your cock and roast it like a ’Shael-spawned sausage, you stupid, skinny, buck-toothed fuck . . .”

Qora.

Gwenna’s body went tight, then loose, the way it always did in the moments before a fight

“They’re east,” she said grimly. “East-northeast. And captured.”

Annick didn’t debate the question. She knew that Gwenna’s senses were slightly keener than her own. “How do you want to handle it?”

“Jak,” Gwenna said, “loop us around half a mile. I want to come in behind them, and fast. Annick, when the time comes, take down whoever’s guarding Qora and Talal.”

“You sure it’s both of them?”

Gwenna breathed in deep through her nose. She wasn’t certain, but she didn’t need to be certain.

“Just kill whoever needs killing.”

She slid the long, smooth cylinder of a smoker free of the holster at her waist.

“We’ll hit them in the open area in front of the Baths. Jak, smash and grab. Don’t even set the bird down. The smoker will cover our retreat.”

“They don’t have harnesses,” the flier pointed out. “If they’re bound, they won’t be able to mount up.”

“They don’t need to mount up. I’ve got two hands, one for each of them.”

“A lot of weight,” Annick said, voice flat, factual. “Especially Talal.”

Gwenna nodded, rolled her shoulder in its socket, tried to ignore the little click it always did.

Unlike some of the leaches back on the Islands, Talal didn’t rely on his arcane power to keep him safe in a fight. He was half a head taller than Gwenna, thick through the shoulders and chest, strong in the legs. On a mission in the Blood Cities two years earlier, she’d watched him seize the tongue of a wagon—a wagon loaded past the boards with bricks—then drag the thing fifty paces to block off the end of a bridge. The bastard was all muscle and scar. Lifting him would be like lifting a sack packed with wet sand, never mind dragging Qora along in her other hand.

She set her boots more firmly on the talon.

“We just need to get clear. I can hold them for a quarter mile, long enough for Jak to land on a rooftop.”

“I can carry Qora,” Annick said.

Gwenna shook her head. “I need you on that bow.”

As plans went, it wasn’t the worst one Gwenna had ever cooked up. On the other hand, she’d been the genius behind some pretty piss-poor plans. In this case, at least, they had the advantages of height, surprise, darkness, explosives, and a huge fucking bird.

Everything ought to go all right.

The thought just set her more on edge; ought was a word she’d long ago learned to distrust.

Jak brought the bird around, coming in low and hard over the sloping roofs. They were a few hundred paces out when the patrol stepped from the darkness of an alleyway into the ruddy torchlight of the cleared land around the Baths. Ten men—they were all men—moving in a tight knot. Some were looking outward, but most were focused on the two prisoners in their midst. How Qora and Talal had been captured, Gwenna had no idea, but both seemed to have escaped serious injury. They were walking, at least, and while Qora favored her right leg, she was still furiously cursing the soldiers surrounding her.

“. . . And you, you nutless, gutless fuck, I’m gonna put this hand up your ass, reach all the way up, and rip out your ’Kent-kissing tongue. . . .”

The soldiers outnumbered their prisoners five to one, had them disarmed and bound at the elbows and wrists, but instead of triumph, they smelled of fury and puke-sweet fear. Obviously, the two Kettral had opened some throats on the way to being taken. One of the men prodded Qora with the tip of his spear. Instead of flinching, the woman leaned into the sharp steel. It had to hurt, but Qora was even more pigheaded than Gwenna, which, she had to admit, was saying something.

“You limp-dick piece of shit,” the woman snarled. “You don’t have the stones to finish it.”

It was a stupid gibe. Despite their sun-bleached uniforms, the Dombângans weren’t professional soldiers. Most of them were barely more than kids. Probably they’d kicked in a few doors, dragged some terrified families before the high priests. Maybe some of them had a little training with a spear, but they were afraid, and fear made people dangerous, unreliable. It would be easy for one of them to twitch and put that spear right through Qora’s ribs. Gwenna willed them to remember that blood was precious in Dombâng, that their gods demanded living sacrifices.

Jak trimmed the angle of attack.

Talal,” Gwenna said. “Qora.” She spoke at a normal volume; the guards wouldn’t hear her, but the Kettral would. “Stand by for extract.”

Qora was too busy shouting, but the leach started to turn, then stopped himself—no reason to give the guards warning—listened a moment, then nodded.

“Qora,” he said. “Smash and grab.”

One of the soldiers shoved him forward with the butt of a spear. Talal stumbled, but he had the other woman’s attention.

“When?” she demanded.

“In eight,” Gwenna replied, pitching her voice over the wind screaming in her ears. “Seven. Six.”

Rooftops scraped past just beneath the bird’s talons. Alleys, verandas, causeways, docks . . .

“Annick,” Gwenna said.

The sniper’s blue eyes were black in the darkness. She loosed the first arrow, then two more in quick succession, hands flicking between the quiver and the string, too fast for Gwenna to follow.

“Five,” Gwenna said.

The first Greenshirt fell—the group’s commander, judging from his uniform—holding his hands to his chest as though in prayer.

Blood sprayed from the throat of a second.

Gwenna lit the smoker. The long fuse hissed, spat sparks.

Another soldier sat down abruptly, reached for the arrow in his eye, then slumped to the side.

“Four.”

Panic tore through the Greenshirts like a great wave crashing. Men whirled, brandishing their spears, staring wide-eyed but blind into the night’s gulf. Garbled exclamations spilled from half a dozen throats— . . . attack . . . under cover . . . behind us . . . no!—the language too broken, too trampled to serve any purpose. One of the soldiers had seized his fallen comrade, was trying to haul him to safety, not realizing the man was already dead. Another broke away, racing for the safety of the Baths. A third stood paralyzed, dark eyes glazed with fire.

“Three.”

Talal and Qora, by contrast, stepped into the madness as though it were a dance. The leach lashed out with a foot at the nearest guard, taking him in the side of the knee, buckling the leg. Qora rammed her forehead into another man’s nose, smashing it halfway back into his skull. Blood drenched her face when she pulled away, black against her brown skin, but she was grinning as she turned.

“Two,” Gwenna said.

The bird’s huge wings shifted, beat backward in a great wash of wind. The talons started to swing forward. Gwenna hurled the smoker over the heads of the two Kettral, toward the cordon of sentries posted outside the Baths.

Starshatter!” Talal bellowed.

She shook her head. “It’s just a smoker. Prepare for . . .”

Talal, however, was already moving, hurling himself at Qora. His hands remained tied, but his shoulder took her in the gut, knocking her into a low depression with his own body on top

The explosion hit Gwenna like a brick wall.

The world blossomed into hard darkness scribbled with fire. Curses and screams slashed the night. Pain flayed her with a thousand blades. For a heartbeat she didn’t know where she was, whether standing or swimming or falling. Underwater? No, she could breathe. Back on the Islands? Her trainers were going to be pissed if she’d fucked up some exercise. The vets could be unforgiving. . . .

And then, as though in conversation with that first thought, the grim realization: We are the vets now. And this isn’t training.

The rest of the facts came back like a slap as she struggled to right herself, to find some purchase on the empty air. Her hands were empty. Where were her swords? Had she dropped her swords? A moment later, white-hot pain— brighter than the general agony—lanced her shoulder, sliced her across the leg. Her vision narrowed to a tunnel of flame. She gritted her teeth, took oblivion by the throat, forced it back.

Slowly, she growled to herself. Slowly.

With blistering hands, she felt for her harness. It was taut around her waist, the tether stretching up and away, still linking her to the bird. She squinted, and the talon came into focus, and there, dangling from her own tether, Annick, also upside down, also struggling to right herself. Grimacing against the pain, Gwenna took hold of the harness strap, dragged herself up, managed to plant her boots on the talon.

The Dawn King was screaming, but they hadn’t crashed. Gwenna blinked the haze from her vision. They seemed to be flying rather than falling.

The bird’s cry trailed off, and she made out Jak’s voice: “. . . hit us.”

Presumably that sentence had had a beginning.

“Say again,” Gwenna managed.

Something soaked the front of her blacks. She put a hand to it. Oh, right— blood.

A starshatter,” the flier said. “That’s what hit us.”

“I didn’t throw a starshatter.”

“Not you, them. The insurgents.”

Understanding punched her in the gut.

She’d spent the last month supplying Annurian loyalists with Kettral munitions. The point was for them to use the bombs against the bad guys, but people got captured, people switched sides, people panicked and dropped their packs. It wasn’t surprising that the Greenshirts had ended up with a starshatter. Shitty, but not surprising.

Her right shoulder blazed. She lifted a hand to the wound, found something hot and jagged lodged in the muscle. Again she almost blacked out, again clamped down on the dizziness and nausea. She could raise her arm, rotate it forward and back. So the muscle wasn’t severed, though something was binding in the joint. More carefully, she checked the wound once more.

She couldn’t get a good look, but she could feel it well enough—a jagged length of metal about the size of her finger.

“You should leave that in.”

Annick had regained her footing over on the other talon. Given the blacks and the lack of light it was impossible to tell if she was wounded, but she looked ready to fight. Which was good, because there was a lot of fighting coming.

Gwenna wrapped her hand around the metal shard.

“Gwenna—”

She didn’t hear the rest of Annick’s objection because this time, as she ripped the thing from her shoulder, she really did pass out.

For a moment she was floating. Warm salt water buoyed her up. Waves lapped her bare skin, washing her hair against her face. The weightlessness felt good, better than good, as though her land-bound body had been a burden she’d never realized she was carrying, something that had been crushing her little by little, day after day.

I could just stay here, she murmured.

Even as the words left her lips, though, she was waking once more to the horrors of the night, heavy in her harness all over again, spinning like dead weight as the bird hurtled forward through the dark.

“Well, fuck,” she muttered to herself, the words chafing over chapped lips.

She dragged in a ragged breath—her lungs felt seared—got a foot on the talon, stopped the spin, hauled herself in all over again, checked the puncture in her shoulder. It was bleeding, but she’d spent a lot of her life bleeding. She was conscious. None of her limbs had folded the wrong way. Her heart was getting on with things, banging out the same old angry rhythm, which meant there were no excuses.

“Jak,” she asked. “How’s the King?”

“Seems all right,” the flier replied. He didn’t sound hurt, which made sense. He sat on the Dawn King’s back. The bird’s massive body would have protected him from the blast. “I won’t know for sure until we dismount, but he’s moving smoothly.”

That too made sense. The starshatter hadn’t shattered Gwenna or Annick. Whoever detonated the explosive had fucked up—lit it too early or botched the throw. The blast might have enraged the bird, but it wouldn’t have knocked him out of the sky. Lucky.

Of course, it wasn’t fucking lucky that the Greenshirts had a starshatter in the first place. Someone, one of the bastards Gwenna and the rest had come all this ’Kent-kissing way to help, had made a mistake, and now her Wing was paying the price. She let her rage run for a few heartbeats. There was strength in the anger, strength that she badly needed. Then, as she felt her breathing hot and eager between her teeth, she dragged her attention back to the moment. The Dawn King was gliding out over a stretch of dark lagoon. She could hear, somewhere behind them, the kicked hive of the Purple Baths buzzing with shouted orders, questions, cries of pain.

“Take us back around.”

She steadied herself against the bird’s leg as the flier hauled them into a steep bank. The bathhouse swung back into view, huge as a castle keep, illuminated by the watchfires. Talal and Qora would be on the far side, the eastern side. Or what was left of them. They’d been on the ground, much closer to the point of detonation. Talal had seen the starshatter, tried to get them clear, but the cover had been for shit. How deep was the depression that he’d knocked them into? Gwenna’s head throbbed as she tried to remember. She tightened her grip on the harness tether.

“Faster,” she called up. Her own voice sounded tight, like a bowstring too short for its straining stave.

“What’s the plan?” Jak asked.

“Second verse, same as the first.”

“If they have another starshatter . . .”

“We’ll be ready this time. Annick, you see someone lighting a fuse—shoot them. Jak, pull up hard if you notice anything—don’t wait on my command. Otherwise we’re going back in.”

She tested her hands. They hurt, but they worked. If the two Kettral were injured or unconscious, she’d need to unclip, dismount, get them to the bird, hold them during takeoff. Her shoulder felt like someone had been going at it with a hatchet for the better part of the night, but that was just too fucking bad. The arm could fall off after.

Quick Jak knew his work. He came in low and fast, using the bulk of the bathhouse to hide them until, at the last moment, he pulled the bird up over the roof—so low they skimmed the carved, gilded figures on the eaves. Gwenna caught a glimpse of the serpents and crocs, jaguars and fish with gems for eyes and teeth like knives. The Dombângans set them on their ridge lines to ward off evil spirits. Too bad for them that she and her Wing were a little more solid than spirits. They burst over the roof’s peak like the shadow of death itself, and Gwenna got her first view of the chaos in the open space beyond.

Their initial attack, despite its failure, had rocked the Greenshirts. Men and women sprinted in a dozen directions at once, brandishing spears and flatbows, pointing, shouting, cowering behind dubious cover. The starshatter had ripped a jagged, smoking divot in the soft dirt, and the last shreds of smoke from Gwenna’s own munition hung across the mess like a tattered flag.

It took her a moment to flip the scene in her mind, to sort through the chaos and find the ditch where Talal and Qora had taken cover.

Empty.

Copyright © Brian Staveley 2021

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