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Excerpt: The Starless Crown by James Rollins

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An alliance embarks on a dangerous journey to uncover the secrets of the distant past and save their world in this captivating, deeply visionary adventure from #1 New York Times bestselling thriller-master James Rollins.

A gifted student foretells an apocalypse. Her reward is a sentence of death.

Fleeing into the unknown she is drawn into a team of outcasts:

A broken soldier, who once again takes up the weapons he’s forbidden to wield and carves a trail back home.

A drunken prince, who steps out from his beloved brother’s shadow and claims a purpose of his own.

An imprisoned thief, who escapes the crushing dark and discovers a gleaming artifact – one that will ignite a power struggle across the globe.

On the run, hunted by enemies old and new, they must learn to trust each other in order to survive in a world evolved in strange, beautiful, and deadly ways, and uncover ancient secrets that hold the key to their salvation.

But with each passing moment, doom draws closer.

WHO WILL CLAIM THE STARLESS CROWN?

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Starless Crown, on sale 01/04/2022.


1

Nyx sought to understand the stars with her fingertips.

Near blind, she had to lean far over the low table to reach to the heart of the orrery, to the warmth of the bronze sun at the center of the complicated astronomical mechanism. She knew the kettle-sized sphere had been filled with hot coals prior to the morning’s lesson, to mimic the life-giving heat of the Father Above, who made His home there. She held her palm toward that warmth, then took great care to count outward along the slowly turning rings that marked the paths of inner planets around the Father. Her fingers stopped at the third. She rested a tip there and felt the vibrations of the gears that turned this ring, heard the tick-tick-ticking as their teacher spun the wheel on the far side of the orrery to drive their world to Nyx’s waiting hand.

“Take care, child,” she was warned.

The device was four centuries old, one of the school’s most precious artifacts. It was said to have been stolen from the courts of Azantiia by the founding high prioress and brought to the Cloistery of Brayk. Others claimed it wasn’t stolen, but crafted by the prioress herself, using skills long lost to those who lived and taught here now.

Either way—

“Better not break it, Dumblefoot,” Byrd blurted out. His comment stirred snickers from the other students who sat in a circle around the domed chamber of the astronicum.

Their teacher—Sister Reed, a young novitiate of the Cloistery—growled them all to silence.

Nyx’s cheeks heated. While her fellow students could easily observe the intricate dance of spheres around the bronze sun, she could not. To her, the world was perpetually lost in a foggy haze, where movement could be detected in shifts of shadows and objects discerned in gradations of shimmering outlines in the brightest sunlight. Even colors were muted and watery to her afflicted eyes. Worst of all, when she was inside, like now, her sight was smothered to darkness.

She needed to touch to understand.

She took a deep breath and steadied her fingers as the small sphere that marked their world rotated into her hand. The bronze ring to which it was pinned continued to turn with the spin of the wheeled gears. To keep her fingertips in place atop the fist-sized sphere of their world, she had to scoot around the table. By now, the bronze sun had heated one surface of the sphere to a subtle warmth, while the opposite was cold metal, forever turned from the Father.

“Can you now better appreciate how the Mother always keeps one face perpetually gazing at the Father Above?” Sister Reed asked. “A side that eternally burns under His stern-but-loving attention.”

Nyx nodded, still circling the table to match the sphere’s path around the sun.

Sister Reed addressed both her and the other students. “And at the same time, the other side of our world is forever denied the Father’s fierce gaze and remains frozen in eternal darkness, where it is said the very air is ice.”

Nyx did not bother to acknowledge the obvious, her attention fixed as the Urth completed its circuit around the sun.

“It is why we live in the Crown,” the sister continued, “the circlet of the world that lies between the scorched lands on one side of the Urth and those forever frozen on the other.”

Nyx ran her fingertip around this circumference of the sphere, passing from north to south and back again. The Crown of the Urth marked the only hospitable lands where its peoples, flora, and fauna could flourish. Not that there weren’t stories of what lay beyond the Crown, terrifying tales— many blasphemous—whispered about those dreaded lands, those frozen on one side, scorched on the other.

Sister Reed stopped turning the wheel, bringing the dance of planets to a rest. “Now that Nyx has had her turn to study the orrery, can anyone tell me why the Mother Below eternally matches her gaze with the Father Above, without ever turning her face away?”

Nyx kept her post, her fingers still on the half-warmed sphere.

Kindjal answered the teacher’s question. She quoted from the text they had been assigned to study this past week. “She and our world are forever trapped in the hardened amber of the void, unable to ever turn away.”

“Very good,” Sister Reed said warmly.

Nyx could almost feel the beam of satisfaction from Kindjal, twin sister to Byrd, both children of the highmayor of Fiskur, the largest town along the northern coast of Mýr. Though the town lay a full day’s boat ride away, the two lorded their status among the students here, proffering gifts on those who fawned over them, while ridiculing all others, often resorting to physical affronts to reinforce their humiliations.

It was perhaps for that reason more than any other that Nyx spoke up, contradicting Kindjal. “But the Urth is not trapped in amber,” she mumbled to the orrery, her fingers still on the half-heated sphere. She hated to draw attention to herself, longing to return to the obscurity of her seat near the back of the class, but she refused to deny what her fingers discovered. “It still turns in the void.”

Byrd came to his twin’s defense, scoffing loudly. “Even blindfolded, any fool could tell the Mother always faces the Father. The Urth never turns away.”

“This is indeed immutable and unchangeable,” Sister Reed concurred. “As the Father burns forever in our skies, the Mother always stares with love and gratefulness toward the majesty of Him.”

“But the Urth does turn,” Nyx insisted, her mumble firming with frustration.

Though already nearly blind, she closed her eyes and viewed the orrery from above in her mind. She pictured the path of the sphere as it rotated around the bronze sun. She remembered the tiniest ticking under her fingertips as she had followed its course. She had felt it turn in her grip as it made a full passage around the sun.

She tried to explain. “It must turn. To keep the Mother forever facing the Father, the Urth turns once fully around as it makes a complete circuit through the seasons. One slow turn every year. It’s the only way for one side of the Urth to be continually burning under the sun’s gaze.”

Kindjal scoffed. “No wonder her mother tossed her away. She’s too stupid to understand the simplest truths.”

“But she’s right,” a voice said behind them, rising from the open door to the astronicum dome.

Nyx froze, only shifting her clouded gaze toward the patch of brightness that marked the open door. A shadow darkened the threshold. She did not need sight to know who stood there, recognizing the hard tones, presently undercut with a hint of amusement.

“Prioress Ghyle,” Sister Reed said. “What an honor. Please join us.”

The shadow moved away from the brightness as the head of the cloistered school entered. “It seems the youngest among you has proven that insight does not necessarily equate with the ability to see.”

“But surely—” Sister Reed started.

“Yes, surely,” Prioress Ghyle interrupted. “It is a subtlety of astronomical knowledge that is usually reserved for those in their first years of alchymical studies. Not for a seventhyear underclass. Even then, many alchymical students have difficulty seeing what is plain before their eyes.”

A shuffle of leather on stone marked the prioress’s approach to the orrery.

Finally releasing her grip on the world, Nyx straightened and bowed her head.

“Let us test what else this young woman of only fourteen winters can discern from today’s lesson.” The prioress’s finger lifted Nyx’s chin. “Can you tell us why those in the northern Crown experience seasons—from the icy bite of winter to the warmth of summer—even when one side of the Urth forever faces the sun?”

Nyx had to swallow twice to free her tongue. “It . . . It is to remind us of the gift of the Father to the Mother, so we better appreciate His kindness at being allowed to live in the Crown, in the safe lands between scorching heat and icy death. He gives us a taste of hot and cold with the passage of each year.”

The prioress sighed. “Yes, very good. Just as Hieromonk Plakk has droned into you.” The finger lifted her chin higher as if to study Nyx more intently. “But what does the orrery tell you?”

Nyx stepped back. Even with her hazy sight, she was unable to withstand the weight of Ghyle’s attention any longer. She returned to the orrery and again pictured the path of the Urth around the coal-heated sun. She had felt the waxing and waning of the warmth as the sphere rotated fully around.

“The Urth’s path is not a perfect circle around the sun,” Nyx noted aloud. “More like an oval.”

“An ellipse, it is called.”

Nyx nodded and cast a quizzical look at the prioress. “Maybe when the Urth’s path is farthest from the sun, farthest from the heat, could that be our wintertime?”

“It is not a bad guess. Even some of the most esteemed alchymists might tell you the same. But they are no more correct than Hieromonk Plakk.”

“Then why?” Nyx asked, curiosity getting the better of her.

“What if I told you that when we have our dark winters here in the northern half of the Crown, that the lands to the far south enjoy a bright summer?”

“Truly?” Nyx asked. “At the same time?”

“Indeed.”

Nyx scrunched her brow at what sounded like absurdity. Still, she sensed the prioress was hinting at something with the words she had emphasized.

Dark and bright.

“Have you never wondered,” Ghyle pressed, “how in winter the Father sits lower in the sky, then higher again in the summer? Though the sun never vanishes, it makes a tiny circle in the sky over one year’s passing?”

Nyx gave a tiny shake of her head and a wave toward her eyes. There was no way she could appreciate such subtlety.

A hand touched her shoulder. “Of course, I’m sorry. But let me assure you this is true. And as such, can you guess from your study of the orrery why this might be?”

Nyx turned back to the convoluted rings of bronze on the table. She sensed she was being tested. She could almost feel the prioress’s intensity burning next to her. She took a deep breath, determined not to disappoint the head of the school. She reached out a hand to the orrery. “May I?”

“Of course.”

Nyx again took her time to center herself on the warm sun and fumble to the third ring. Once she found the sphere affixed there, she examined its shape more closely, taking care of the tiny bead of the moon that spun on its own ring around the Urth. She particularly noted how the sphere of the Urth was pinned to the ring beneath it.

Ghyle offered a suggestion. “Sister Reed, it might help our young student if you set everything in motion again.”

After a rustling of skirts, the mechanism’s complicated gears resumed their tick-ticking and the rings started to turn again. Nyx concentrated on how the Urth slowly spun in place as it made a full pass around the sun. She struggled to understand how the southern half could be brighter, while the northern side was darker. Then understanding traveled up her fingertips. The pin around which the Urth spun was not perfectly up and down. Instead, it was set at a slight angle from the sun.

Could that be the answer?

Certainty grew.

She spoke as she continued her own path around the sun. “As the Urth turns, its axis spins at a slight angle, rather than straight up and down. Because of that, for a time, the top half of the world leans toward the sun.”

“Creating our bright northern summer,” the prioress confirmed.

“And when that happens, the bottom half is left leaning away from the sun.”

“Marking the southern Crown’s gloomy winter.”

Nyx turned to the prioress, shocked. “So, seasons are due to the Urth spinning crookedly in place, leaning one side more fully toward the sun, then away again.”

Murmurs spread among the students. Some sounded distraught; others incredulous. But at least Byrd offered no overt ridicule, not in the presence of the prioress.

Still, Nyx felt her face heating up again.

Then a hand patted her shoulder, ending with a squeeze of reassurance.

Startled by the contact, she flinched away. She hated any unexpected touch. Many a boy—even some girls—had come of late to grab at her, often cruelly, pinching what was most tender and private. She could not even accuse and point a finger. Not that she often didn’t know who it was. Especially Byrd, who always reeked of rank sweat and a sour-yeasty breath. It was a cloud that he carried about him from the stores of ale secretly sent to him by his father in Fiskur.

“I’m sorry—” the prioress said softly, plainly noting Nyx’s reaction and unease.

Nyx tried to retreat, but one of her fingers had hooked through the Urth’s ring when she had flinched. Embarrassment turned to panic. She tried to extract her hand but twisted her finger wrong. A metallic pop sounded, which earned a gasp from Sister Reed. Free now, Nyx withdrew her hand from the orrery and clutched a fist to her chest.

Something tinged and tanged across the stone floor near her toes.

“She broke it!” Byrd blurted out, but there was no scorn, only shock.

Another hand grasped her elbow and yanked her back. Caught off guard, Nyx stumbled and tripped to her knees on the floor.

“What have you done, you clumsy girl?” Sister Reed still clutched her. “I’ll have you switched to your core for this.”

“No, you won’t,” Prioress Ghyle said. “It was an accident. One for which I’m equally at fault for startling the child. Would you have me tied to the rod and beaten, Sister Reed?”

“I would never . . .”

“Then neither will the child suffer. Leave her be.”

Nyx’s elbow was freed, but not before those same fingers squeezed hard, digging down to the bone. The message was clear. This matter was not over. It was a bruising promise. Sister Reed intended to exact payment for being humiliated in front of the students, in front of the prioress.

Ghyle’s robes swished as her voice lowered toward the floor. “See. It is just the Urth’s moon that has broken free.” Nyx pictured the prioress collecting the bronze marble from the floor. “It can easily be returned to its proper place and repaired.”

Nyx gained her feet, her face as hot as the sun, tears threatening.

“Sister Reed, mayhap it’s best that you end today’s lesson. I think your seventhyears have had more than enough celestial excitement for one morning.”

Nyx was already moving before Sister Reed dismissed the class to break for their midday meal. She raced her tears toward the brightness of the door. No one blocked her flight, perhaps fearing to catch her humiliation and shame. In her haste to escape, she left behind her cane—a sturdy length of polished elm—which she used to help guide her steps. Still, she refused to go back and fled out into the sunlight and shadows of a summer day.

2

As others headed to their dormitory hall, where a cold midday repast awaited the students, Nyx hurried in the other direction. She had no appetite. Instead, she reached one of the four staircases that led down from the seventh tier to the one below, where the sixthyears were likely already eating in their own hall.

Though the world around her was only shadows against that brightness, she did not slow. Even without her cane, she moved swiftly. She had lived half of her life in the walled Cloistery. By now, she knew every nook and crook of its tiers. The number of steps, turns, and stairs had been ingrained into her, allowing her to traverse the school with relative ease. At the edge of her full awareness, a silent count ran in the back of her skull. She instinctively reached out a hand every now and then—to a carved lintel, to a wooden post of a stall, to a stone flogging pillar—continually confirming her location and position.

As she descended through the tiers, she pictured the breadth of the Cloistery of Brayk. It rose like a stepped hill from the swamps of Mýr. At its base, the school stretched over a mile across, built atop a foundation of volcanic stone, one of the rare solid places among these watery marshlands and drowned forests. The school was the second oldest in the Kingdom of Hálendii—the oldest being on the outskirts of its capital, Azantiia—but the Cloistery was still considered the harshest and most esteemed due to its isolation. Students spent their entire nine years in Brayk, beginning at the lowermost tier where the young firstyears were instructed. From there, classes were winnowed smaller and smaller to match the ever-shrinking tiers of the school. Those that failed to rise were sent back to their families in shame, but that did not stop students from arriving here by boats and ships from all around the Crown. For those who succeeded in reaching the ninth tier at the school’s pinnacle, they were destined for honor and prominence, advancing either to the handful of alchymical academies where they’d be instructed into the deeper mysteries of the world or into one of the religious orders to be ordained into the highest devotions.

When Nyx reached the third tier, she glanced back to the summit of the school. Twin fires glowed amidst the shadows at the top, bright enough for even her clouded eyes to discern. One pyre smoked with alchymical mysteries; the other burned with clouds of sacred incense. It was said the shape and fires of the Cloistery mimicked the volcanic peak at the heart of Mýr, the steam-shrouded mountain of The Fist. In addition, the infused smoke rising from the top of the school served to keep the denizens of those cave-pocked slopes—the winged bats—from approaching too close. Still, in the gloom of winter, dark wings occasionally shredded through the low clouds. Screeches would send first- and secondyears cowering and crying for reassurance from the sisters and brothers who taught them—until eventually one grew to ignore the threat.

Nyx could not say the same was true for her. Even at her age, the hunting cries would set her heart to pounding, her head to burning. And when she was younger—a firstyear new to the school—terror would overwhelm her, sending her into a dead faint. But she had nothing to fear now. It was the middle of summer, and whether from the brightness or the heat, the massive bats kept away from the swamp’s edges, sticking close to their dark dens in The Fist.

By the time she finally reached the lowermost tier of the Cloistery, her shame and embarrassment had waned to a dull ache in her chest. She rubbed her bruised elbow, a reminder that there would still be repercussions to come.

Until then, she wanted reassurance and aimed for the only place she could find it. She headed out through the school gates and into the trading post of Brayk. The ramshackle village hugged the walls of the Cloistery. Brayk fed, supplied, and maintained the school. Goods were carted upward every morning, accompanied by lines of men and women who served as chambermaids, servitors, sculleries, and cooks. Nyx had thought this to be her own fate, having started at the school as a housegirl at the age of six.

Once out into the village, she moved just as surefooted. She not only counted her footsteps through the crooked streets, but her ears pricked to the rhythmic hammering of Smithy’s Row to her left. The steady ringing helped guide her path. Her nose also lifted to the pungent smoke and heady spices of markets, where fishes and eels were already frying under the midday sun. Even her skin noted the thickening air and growing dampness as she reached Brayk’s outskirts. Here the stone-and-plaster palacios closer to the school’s walls declined to more modest homes and storehouses with wooden walls and thatched roofs.

Still, she continued onward until a new smell filled her world. It was a heavy brume of sodden hair, sweet shite, trampled mud, and sulfurous belch. She felt her fears shedding from her shoulders as she drew nearer, enveloping herself in the rich odors.

It meant home.

Her arrival did not go unnoticed. A rumbling bellow greeted her, followed by another, and another. Splashing headed her way.

She crossed forward until her hands found the stacked stone fence that marked off the bullock pens at the swamp’s edge. A heavy shuffle aimed toward her, accompanied by a softer grunting and a few plaintive bleats, as if the great lumbering beasts thought themselves to blame for her long absence. She lifted a hand until a wet nose, covered in cold phlegm, settled into her palm. Her fingers were nosed up and gently nuzzled. From its size and the shape, she knew this snout as readily as she did the village and school.

“It’s good to see you, too, Gramblebuck.”

She freed her hand and reached up. She dug her fingers through the thick matted fur between the stubby horns until her nails found skin. She scratched him hard where he always liked it, earning a contented huff of hot air against her chest. Gramblebuck was the eldest of the herd, nearly a century old. He rarely pulled the sledges through the rushes and marshes any longer, but he remained lord of the bullocks. Most of the shaggy herd here could trace their blood to this one beast.

She reached up both arms and gripped his horns. Even with his head bowed low, she had to lift to her toes to get hold. She pulled his head to hers, his crown as wide as her chest. She inhaled his wet musk, leaned into the warm hearth of his bulk.

“I missed you, too,” she whispered.

He grunted back and tried to haul her up by arching his short neck.

She laughed and let go of his horns before she was carried aloft. “I don’t have time to go for a ride with you. Maybe on my midsummer break.”

Though Gramblebuck no longer pulled the sledges, he still loved to trek the swamps. All her life, she had spent many a long day on his wide back, traversing the marshes. His long legs and splayed hooves made easy passage through its bogs and streams, while his size and curled tusks discouraged any predators from daring to approach.

She patted his cheek. “Soon. I promise you.”

As she headed down the fencerow, running her fingertips along the posts, she hoped it was a promise she could keep. Other bullocks shuffled and sidled up, wanting attention, too. She knew most of them by touch and smell. But her time was limited. The bells would soon be summoning her back to her studies.

She hurried toward the corner of the hundred-acre bullock pen, where a homestead stood. Its foundation was anchored to the stone shore but also stretched out atop a massive dock, which extended a quarter league into the swamps. The home’s walls were stacked stones matching the fence, its roof thatched like the homes nearby. Higher up, a rock chimney pointed at the skies, where the shadows of low clouds scudded across the brightness, rolling ever eastward, carrying the freezing cold of the dark toward the searing scorch on the other side of the world.

She crossed to the stout door, lifted the iron latch, and shoved inside without a knock or a shout. As she stepped into the deeper shadows, her world shrank, but not in a disconcerting way. It was like being wrapped in a warm, familiar blanket. She was immediately struck by a mélange of odors that meant home: the smell of old wool, the oily polish of wood, the smoke of dying coals, the melting beeswax from the tiny candles in the home’s corner altar. Even the waft of composting silage from the twin stone silos that flanked the docks pervaded everything.

Her ears piqued to a shuffle of limbs and creak of wood near the ruddy glow of the hearth. A voice, wry with amusement, rose from there. “Trouble again, is it?” her dah asked. “Is there any other reason you tumble back home nowadays, lass? And without your cane?”

She hung her head, staring down at her empty hands. She wanted to dismiss his words but could not.

A gentle laugh softened his judgement. “Come sit and tell me about it.”


With her back to the fire, Nyx finished her litany of the morning’s humiliations and fears. It lightened her spirit simply to unburden them.

All the while, her dah sat silently, puffing on a pipe smoldering with snakeroot. The tincture in the smoke helped with the crick and rasp of his joints. But she suspected his silence was less about tempering any pain than it was to allow her the time to fill the quiet with her complaints.

She let out a sigh to announce the ending.

Her dah sucked on his pipe and exhaled one long bitter breath of smoke. “Let me ken it better for you. You certainly tweaked the nose of the nonne who taught you this last quarter.”

Nyx rubbed the bruise from Sister Reed’s bony fingers and nodded.

“But you also impressed yourself upon the prioress of the entire school. Not a small feat, I imagine.”

“She was being kindly at best. And I don’t think my clumsiness helped the situation. Especially breaking the school’s treasured orrery.”

“No matter. What is broken can always be set aright. On the balance of it, I’d say you fared well for one morning. You’ll finish your seventhyear in another turn of the moon. Leaving only the eighthyear to go until the final culling to the ninth and highest tier. It seems, under such circumstances, earning the good graces of the prioress herself versus irking a single nonne—a sister who you’ll soon leave behind anyway—is not a bad trade.”

His words helped further temper her misgivings. Maybe he was right. She had certainly endured far harsher obstacles to reach the seventh tier. And now I’m so close to the top. She shoved that hope down deep, fearing even wishing it might dash her chances.

As if reading her thoughts, her dah underscored her luck. “Look where you started. A babe of six moons mewling atop a floating raft of fenweed. If not for your bellyaching, we wouldn’t aheard ya. Gramblebuck would have dragged my sledge right past ya.”

She attempted to smile. The story of her being found abandoned in the bog was a point of joy to her dah. He had two strong sons—both in their third decade now, who managed the paddocks and ran the sledges—but the man’s wife had died giving birth to his only daughter, losing both at the same time. He took Nyx’s discovery in the swamps as some gift from the Mother, especially as there was no evidence of who had left the infant naked and crying in the bog. The spread of fenweed, a fragile and temperamental plant, exhibited no evidence of any treadfall around her body. Even the tender blooms that covered the floating mat’s surface showed no bruise to their petals. It was as if she had been dropped from the skies as a reward for the devout and hardworking swamper.

Still, while this oft told story was a point of pride for her dah, for her it was laced with an uncomfortable mix of shame and anger. Her mother—maybe both her parents—had abandoned her in the swamps, surely left to die, perhaps because she had been born afflicted, the surfaces of her eyes glazed to a bluish white.

“How I loved ya,” her dah said, admitting another truth. “Even if you hadn’t been picked to join the firstyears at the Cloistery. Though my heart just about burst when I heard you passed the test.”

“It was an accident,” she muttered.

He coughed out a gout of smoke. “Don’t say that. Nothing in life is simple chance. It was a sign the Mother still smiles on you.”

Nyx didn’t believe as devoutly as him, but she knew better than to contradict him.

At the time, she had been a housegirl at the school, assigned to washing and scrubbing. She had been mopping one of the testing wards when she tripped over a tumble of small blocks—some stone, others wooden—on the floor. Fearing they might be important, she gathered them up and set them atop a nearby table. But curiosity got the better of her. While neatly stacking them, she felt how different shapes fit against one another. It was how she experienced much of the world around her—then and now—through the sensitivity of her fingers. With no one around, she began fiddling with the blocks and lost track of the time, but eventually the ninescore of shapes built themselves into an intricate structure with crenellated towers and jagged walls that formed a six-pointed star around the castle in the center.

Lost in her labors and concentrating fully on her work, she had failed to notice the gathering around her. Only when done did she straighten, earning gasps from her hidden audience.

She remembered one nonne asking another, “How long has she been in here?”

The answer: “I left when she came in with the mop and pail. That was less than one ring ago.”

“She built the Highmount of Azantiia in such a short time. We give the aspirants an entire day to do the same. And most fail.”

“I swear.”

Someone had then grabbed her chin and turned her face. “And look at the blue cast to her eyes. She’s all but blind.”

Afterward, she had been granted a spot among the firstyears, entering the Cloistery a year younger than anyone else. Only a handful of children from the village of Brayk had ever been granted entrance to the school, and none had climbed higher than the third tier. She secretly took pride in this accomplishment, but it was hard to maintain that satisfaction. As she climbed the tiers with the same shrinking class, the others never let her forget her lowly beginnings. They shamed her for the stink of the silage about her. They teased her for her lack of fine clothes and manners. And then there was her clouded vision, a wall of shadows that continually separated her from the others.

Still, she found solace in her dah’s joy. To stoke that happiness, she kept steadfast in her studies. She also found pleasure in learning more about the world. It was like climbing out of the darkness of a root cellar and into a bright summer day. Shadows remained, mysteries yet to be revealed, but each year more of the darkness about the world lifted. The same curiosity with which she handled those blocks in the testing ward remained and grew with each tier gained.

“You will make it to your ninthyear,” her dah said. “I know it in my bones.”

She gathered his confidence into her heart and held it there. She would devote everything to make that happen.

If nothing else, for him.

Off in the distance, a ringing echoed from the heights of the Cloistery. It was the Summoning Bell. She had to be in her latterday studies before they rang again. She did not have much time.

Her dah heard it, too. “Best you get going, lass.”

She gained her feet by the hearth and reached to his hand, feeling the wiry muscles under thin skin, all wrapped around strong bones. She leaned and kissed him, finding his whiskered cheek as surely as a bee to a honeyclott.

“I’ll see you again when I can,” she promised him, remembering she had sworn the same earlier to Gramblebuck. She intended to keep that promise to both.

“Be good,” her dah said. “And remember the Mother is always looking out for you.”

As she headed toward the door, she smiled at her dah’s undying faith in both her and the Mother Below. She prayed it was not misplaced—not with either of them.

Copyright © 2022 by James Rollins

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