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Kaden hui'Malkeenian did his best to ignore both the cold granite beneath him and the hot sun beating down on his back as he slid forward, trying to get a better view of the scattered stone buildings below. A brisk wind, soaked with the cold of the lingering snows, scratched at his skin. He took a breath, drawing the heat from his core into his limbs, stilling the trembling before it could begin. His years of training with the monks were good for that much, at least. That much, and precious little else.
Valyn shifted at his side, glancing back the way they had come, then forward once more.
"Is this the path you took when you fled?" he asked.
Kaden shook his head. "We went that way," he replied, pointing north toward a great stone spire silhouetted against the sky, "beneath the Talon, then east past Buri's Leap and the Black and Gold Knives. It was night, and those trails are brutally steep. We hoped that soldiers in full armor wouldn't be able to keep up with us."
"I'm surprised they were."
"So was I," Kaden said.
He levered himself up on his elbows to peer over the spine of rock, but Valyn dragged him back.
"Keep your head down, Your Radiance," he growled.
Your Radiance. The title still sounded wrong, unstable and treacherous, like spring ice on a mountain tarn, the whole surface groaning even as it glittered, ready to crack beneath the weight of the first unwary foot. It was hard enough when others used the title, but from Valyn the words were almost unbearable. Though they'd spent half their lives apart, though both were now men in their own right, almost strangers, with their own secrets and scars, Valyn was still his brother, still his blood, and all the training, all the years, couldn't quite efface the reckless boy Kaden remembered from his childhood, the partner with whom he'd played blades and bandits, racing through the hallways and pavilions of the Dawn Palace. Hearing Valyn use the official title was like hearing his own past erased, his childhood destroyed, replaced utterly by the brutal fact of the present.
The monks, of course, would have approved. The past is a dream, they used to say. The future is a dream. There is only now. Which meant those same monks, the men who had raised him, trained him, were not men at all, not anymore. They were rotting meat, corpses strewn on the ledges below.
Valyn jerked a thumb over the rocks that shielded them, jarring Kaden from his thoughts. "We're still a good way off, but some of the bastards who killed your friends might have long lenses."
Kaden frowned, drawing his focus back to the present. He had never even considered the possibility of long lenses-another reminder, as if he needed another reminder, of how poorly his cloistered life at Ashk'lan had prepared him for this sudden immersion in the treacherous currents of the world. He could paint, sit in meditation, or run for days over rough trail, but painting, running, and meditation were meager skills when set against the machinations of the men who had murdered his father, slaughtered the Shin monks, and very nearly killed him as well. Not for the first time, he found himself envying Valyn's training.
For eight years Kaden had struggled to quell his own desires and hopes, fears and sorrows, had fought what felt like an endless battle against himself. Over and over the Shin had intoned their mantras: Hope's edge is sharper than steel. To want is to lack. To care is to die. There was truth to the words, far more truth than Kaden had imagined when he first arrived in the mountains as a child, but if he had learned anything in the past few days, days filled with blood, death, and confusion, he had learned the limits to that truth. A steel edge, as it turned out, was plenty sharp. Clinging to the self might kill you, but not if someone put a knife in your heart first.
In the space of a few days, Kaden's foes had multiplied beyond his own persistent failings, and these new enemies wore polished armor, carried swords in their fists, wielded lies by the thousands. If he was going to survive, if he was to take his father's place on the Unhewn Throne, he needed to know about long lenses and swords, politics and people, about all the things the Shin had neglected in their single-minded effort to train him in the empty trance that was the vaniate. It would take years to fill in the gaps, and he did not have years. His father was dead, had been dead for months already, and that meant, prepared or not, Kaden hui'Malkeenian was the Emperor of Annur.
Until someone kills me, he added silently.
Given the events of the past few days, that possibility loomed suddenly, strikingly large. That armed men had arrived with orders to murder him and destroy the monastery was terrifying enough, but that they were comprised of his own Aedolian Guard-an order sworn to protect and defend him-that they were commanded by high-ranking Annurians, men at the very top of the pyramid of imperial politics, was almost beyond belief. In some ways, returning to the capital and sitting the Unhewn Throne seemed like the surest way to help his enemies finish what they had started.
Of course, he thought grimly, if I'm murdered in Annur, it will mean I made it back to Annur, which would be a success of sorts.
Valyn gestured toward the lip of the rocky escarpment that shielded them. "When you look, look slowly, Your Radiance," he said. "The eye is attracted to motion."
That much, at least, Kaden knew. He'd spent enough time tracking crag cats and lost goats to know how to remain hidden. He shifted his weight onto his elbows, inching up until his eyes cleared the low spine of rock. Below and to the west, maybe a quarter mile distant, hunched precariously on a narrow ledge between the cliffs below and the vast, chiseled peaks above, stood Ashk'lan, sole monastery of the Shin monks, and Kaden's home.
Or what remained of it.
The Ashk'lan of Kaden's memory was a cold place but bright, scoured clean, an austere palette of pale stone, wide strokes of snow, vertiginous rivers shifting their glittering ribbons, ice slicking the north-facing cliffs, all piled beneath a hard, blue slab of sky. The Aedolians had destroyed it. Wide sweeps of soot smudged the ledges and boulders, and fire had lashed the junipers to blackened stumps. The refectory, meditation hall, and dormitory stood in ruins. While the cold stone of the walls had refused to burn, the wooden rafters, the shingles, the casings of the windows and broad pine doors had all succumbed to the flame, dragging sections of masonry with them as they fell. Even the sky was dark, smudged with oily smoke that still smoldered from the wreckage.
"There," Valyn said, pointing to movement near the northern end of the monastery. "The Aedolians. They've made camp, probably waiting for Micijah Ut."
"Gonna be a long wait," Laith said, sliding up beside them. The flier grinned.
Before the arrival of Valyn's Wing, all Kaden's knowledge of the Kettral, of Annur's most secretive and deadly soldiers, came from the stories he had lapped up as a child, tales that had led him to imagine grim, empty-eyed killers, men and women steeped in blood and destruction. The stories had been partly right: Valyn's black eyes were cold as last year's coals, and Laith-the Wing's flier-didn't seem at all concerned about the wreckage below or the carnage they had left behind. They were clearly soldiers, disciplined and well trained, and yet, they seemed somehow young to Kaden.
Laith's casual smile, his obvious delight in irritating Gwenna and provoking Annick, the way he drummed on his knee whenever he got bored, which was often-it was all behavior the Shin would have beaten out of him before his second year. That Valyn's Wing could fly and kill was clear enough, but Kaden found himself worrying, wondering if they were truly ready for the difficult road ahead. Not that he was ready himself, but it would have been nice to think that someone had the situation in hand.
Micijah Ut, at least, was one foe Kaden no longer needed to fear. That the massive Aedolian in all his armor had been killed by a middle-aged woman wielding a pair of knives would have strained belief had Kaden not seen the body. The sight had brought him a muted measure of satisfaction, as though he could set the weight of steel and dead flesh in the scales to balance, in some small part, the rest of the slaughter.
"Anyone want to sneak into their camp with Ut's body?" Laith asked. "We could prop him up somewhere, make it look like he's drinking ale or taking a leak? See how long it takes them to notice the fucker's not breathing?" He looked from Valyn to Kaden, eyebrows raised. "No? That's not why we came back here?"
The group of them had returned to Ashk'lan that morning, flying west from their meager camp in the heart of the Bone Mountains, the same camp where they had fought and killed the men chasing them down, Aedolians and traitorous Kettral both. The trip had occasioned a heated debate: there was broad agreement that someone needed to go, both to check for survivors and to see if there was anything to be learned from the Annurian soldiers who had remained behind when Ut and Tarik Adiv chased Kaden into the peaks. The disagreement centered on just who ought to make the trip.
Valyn didn't want to risk bringing anyone outside his own Wing, but Kaden pointed out that if the Kettral wanted to make use of the snaking network of goat tracks surrounding the monastery, they needed a monk familiar with the land. Rampuri Tan, of course, was the obvious choice-he knew Ashk'lan better than Kaden, not to mention the fact that, unlike Kaden, he could actually fight-and the older monk, despite Valyn's misgivings, seemed to consider his participation a foregone conclusion. Pyrre, meanwhile, argued that it was stupid to return in the first place.
"The monks are dead," she observed, "may Ananshael unknit their celibate souls. You can't help them by poking at the bodies."
Kaden wondered what it felt like to be the assassin, to worship the Lord of the Grave, to have lived so close to death for so long that it held no terror, no wonder. Still, it was not the bodies he wanted to go back for. There was a chance, however small, that the soldiers had captured some of the monks rather than killing them. It wasn't clear what Kaden could do if they had, but with the Kettral at his back it might be possible to rescue one or two. At the very least, he could look.
Tan had dismissed the notion as sentimental folly. The reason to go back was to observe the remaining Aedolians, to ferret out their intentions; Kaden's guilt was just further evidence of his failure to achieve true detachment. Maybe the older monk was right. A true Shin would have rooted out the coiling tightness that snaked about his heart, would have cut away, one by one, the barbs of emotion. But then, aside from Tan and Kaden himself, the Shin were dead: two hundred monks murdered in the night because of him, men and boys whose only goal was the empty calm of the vaniate burned and butchered where they slept to cover up an Annurian coup. Whatever waited at Ashk'lan, it had happened because of Kaden. He had to go back.
The rest was simple. Valyn commanded the Wing, Valyn obeyed the Emperor, and so, in spite of Tan's objections and Pyrre's, in spite of his own concerns, Valyn had bowed his head and obeyed, flying Kaden along with the rest of the Wing to discover what was left of his mountain home. They landed a little to the east, out of sight of the monastery, then covered the final miles on foot. The track was easy, mostly downhill, but the tension built in Kaden's chest as they drew closer.
The Aedolians hadn't bothered to hide their slaughter. There was no need. Ashk'lan lay well beyond the border of the empire, too high in the mountains for the Urghul, too far south for the Edish, too far from anywhere for merchants and traders, and so the brown-robed bodies had been left to litter the central courtyard, some burned, others cut down as they fled, dried blood staining the stones.
"Lots of monks," Laith pointed out, nodding toward the monastery. "All pretty dead."
"What about them?" Valyn asked, pointing toward a row of figures seated cross-legged on the far side of the ledge, staring out over the steppe. "Are they alive?"
Laith raised the long lens. "Nope. Stabbed. Right in the back." He shook his head. "Not sure why they're sitting there. No one tied them."
Kaden looked at the slumped men for a moment, then closed his eyes, imagining the scene.
"They didn't run," he said. "They sought refuge in the vaniate."
"Yeah..." the flier said, drawing out the syllable skeptically. "Doesn't look like they found it."
Kaden stared at the corpses, remembering the awesome emotional vacancy of the trance, the absence of fear, or anger, or worry. He tried to imagine what they had felt sitting there, looking out over the wide green steppe while their home burned a few paces behind them, watching the cold stars as they waited for the knife. "The vaniatemight surprise you," he said quietly.
"Well, I'm tired of being surprised," Valyn growled. He rolled onto his side to look at Kaden, and once again Kaden found himself trying to see his brother-the brother he had once known-beneath the scars and lacerations, behind those unnaturally black eyes. Valyn the child had been quick to smile, to laugh, but Valyn the soldier looked harried, haunted, hunted, as though he distrusted the very sky above him, doubted his own battered hand and the naked sword it held.
Kaden knew the outlines of the story, how Valyn, too, had been stalked by those who wanted to bring down the Malkeenian line. In some ways, Valyn had had it worse than Kaden himself. While the Aedolians had struck suddenly and brutally into the heart of Ashk'lan, the soldiers had been strangers to Kaden, and the sense of injustice, of betrayal, remained abstract. Valyn, on the other hand, had seen his closest friend murdered by his fellow soldiers. He'd watched as the military order to which he'd devoted his life failed him-failed him or betrayed him. Kaden still worried about the possibility that the Kettral command, the Eyrie itself, was somehow complicit in the plot. Valyn had reason enough to be tired and wary, and yet there was something else in that gaze, something that worried Kaden, a darkness deeper than suffering or sorrow.
"We wait here," Valyn went on, "out of sight, until Annick, Talal, and Gwenna get back. If they don't find any monks, living monks, we hump out the way we came in, and get back on the 'Kent-kissing bird."
Kaden nodded. The tension from the walk in had lodged deep in his stomach, a tight knot of loss, and sorrow, and anger. He set about loosening it. He had insisted on coming back for the survivors, but it looked as though there were no survivors. The residual emotion was doing him no good; was, in fact, obscuring his judgment. As he tried to focus on his breath, however, the images of Akiil's face, of Pater's, of Scial Nin's, kept floating into his mind, startling in their immediacy and detail. Somewhere down there, sprawled among those blasted buildings, lay everyone he knew, and everyone, aside from Rampuri Tan, who knew him.
Someone else, someone without the Shin training, might find relief in the knowledge that those faces would fade over time, that the memories would blur, the edges soften; but the monks had taught him not to forget. The memories of his slaughtered friends would remain forever vivid and immediate, the shape of their sprawled forms would remain, carved in all their awful detail. Which is why, he thought grimly, you have to unhitch the feeling from the fact. That skill, too, the Shin had taught him, as though to balance the other.
Behind him, soft cloth scuffed over stone. He turned to find Annick and Talal, the Wing's sniper and leach, approaching, sliding over the wide slabs of rock on their bellies as though they'd been born to the motion. They pulled up just behind Valyn, the sniper immediately nocking an arrow to her bow, Talal just shaking his head.
"It's bad," he said quietly. "No prisoners."
Kaden considered the leach silently. It had come as a surprise to discover that men and women who would have been burned alive or stoned to death for their unnatural abilities anywhere else in Annur served openly with the Kettral. All Kaden's life he'd heard that leaches were dangerous and unstable, their minds warped by their strange powers. Like everyone else, he'd grown up on stories of leaches drinking blood, of leaches lying and stealing, of the horrifying leach-lords, the Atmani, who in their hubris shattered the very empire they had conspired to rule.
Another thing about which I know too little, Kaden reminded himself.
In the short, tense days since the slaughter and rescue, he had tried to talk with Talal, to learn something about the man, but the Kettral leach was quieter, more reserved than the rest of Valyn's Wing. He proved unfailingly polite, but Kaden's questions yielded little, and after the tenth or twelfth evasive response, Kaden started talking less, observing more. Before they flew out, he had watched Talal smudge the bright hoops in his ears with coal from the fire, then his bracelets, then his rings, working the char into the metal until it was almost as dark as his skin.
"Why don't you just take them off?" Kaden had asked.
"You never know," Talal had replied, shaking his head slowly, "what might come in handy out there."
His well, Kaden realized. Every leach had one, a source from which he drew his power. The stories told of men who could pull strength from stone, women who twisted the sharp grip of terror to their own ends. The metal hoops looked innocuous enough, but Kaden found himself staring at them as though they were venomous stone spiders. It took an effort to stamp out the emotion, to look at the man as he was, not as the tales would paint him. In fact, of all the members of Valyn's Wing, Talal seemed the most steady, the most thoughtful. His abilities were unnerving, but Valyn seemed to trust him, and Kaden didn't have so many allies that he could afford the prejudice.
"We could spend all week hunting around the rocks," Talal went on, gesturing to the serrated cliffs. "A couple of monks might have slipped the cordon-they know the territory, it was night...." He glanced over at Kaden and trailed off, something that might have been compassion in his eyes.
"The whole southeastern quadrant is clear," Annick said. If Talal was worried about Kaden's feelings, the sniper seemed indifferent. She spoke in clipped periods, almost bored, while those icy blue eyes of hers scanned the rocks around them, never pausing. "No track. No blood. The attackers were good. For Aedolians."
It was a telling crack. The Aedolians were some of Annur's finest soldiers, handpicked and exhaustively trained to guard the royal family and other important visitors. How this particular group had been incited to betrayal, Kaden had no idea, but Annick's obvious disdain spoke volumes about her own abilities.
"What are they doing down there?" Valyn asked.
Talal shrugged. "Eating. Sleeping. Cleaning weapons. They don't know about Ut and Adiv yet. Don't know that we arrived, that we killed the soldiers chasing Kaden."
"How long will they stay?" Kaden asked. The slaughter seemed absolute, but some part of him wanted to descend anyway, to walk among the rubble, to look at the faces of the slain.
"No telling," Talal replied. "They've got no way to know that the smaller group, the one that went after you, is dead."
"They must have a protocol," Annick said. "Two days, three days, before searching or retreating."
Laith rolled his eyes. "It may shock you to discover, Annick, that some people aren't slaves to protocol. They might not actually have a plan."
"Which is why we would kill them," the sniper replied, voice gelid, "if it came to a fight."
Valyn shook his head. "It's not going to come to a fight. There've got to be seventy, eighty men down there...."
A quiet but fierce cursing from behind them cut into Valyn's words.
"The 'Kent-kissing, Hull-buggering bastard," Gwenna spat, rolling easily over a spine of rock into a low, ready crouch. "That whoreson, slit-licking ass."
Valyn rounded on her. "Keep your voice down."
The red-haired woman waved off the objection. "They're a quarter mile off, Valyn, and the wind's blowing the wrong way. I could sing the 'Shael-spawned Kettral attack anthem at the top of my voice and they wouldn't notice."
This defiance, too, surprised Kaden. The soldiers he remembered from back in the Dawn Palace were all rigid salutes and unquestioned obedience. While it seemed that Valyn had the final call on decisions regarding his Wing, none of the others went out of their way to defer to him. Gwenna, in particular, seemed determined to nudge her toe right up to the line of insubordination. Kaden could see the irritation on his brother's face, the strain around his eyes, tension in the jaw.
"Which bastard are we talking about now?" Laith asked. "There are plenty to go around these days."
"That fancy prick Adiv," Gwenna said, jerking her head toward the northwest. "The one with the blindfold and the attitude."
"The Mizran Councillor," Kaden interjected quietly. It was one of the highest posts in the empire, and not a military position. Kaden had been surprised, even before the betrayal, when the man arrived with the contingent of Aedolians. Now it was just more evidence, as if he needed more, that the conspiracy had penetrated the most trusted quarters of the Dawn Palace.
"Whatever his job is," Gwenna replied, "he's over there, on foot, picking his miserable way out of the mountains. Couldn't have missed our bird by more than a few hundred paces."
Valyn sucked air between his teeth. "Well, we knew Tarik Adiv was alive when we didn't find the body. Now we know where he is. Any sign of Balendin?"
Gwenna shook her head.
"That's something, at least," Valyn replied.
"It is?" Laith asked. "No doubt Balendin's the more dangerous of the two."
"Why do you say that?" Kaden asked.
Laith stared. "Balendin's Kettral," he replied finally, as if that explained everything. "He trained with us. And he's a leach."
"Adiv is a leach himself," Talal pointed out. "That's how they kept up with Kaden in the mountains, how they tracked him."
"I thought they used those spider creatures for the tracking," Laith said.
Talal nodded. "But someone needed to control them, to handle them."
"It doesn't matter now," Valyn said. "Right now Balendin's missing and Adiv is here. Let's work with what we have."
"I've got eyes on him," Annick said.
While they were talking, the sniper had moved silently to a concealed spot between two boulders, half drawing her bowstring.
Kaden risked a glance over the ridge. At first he saw nothing, then noticed a figure limping down a shallow drainage three hundred paces off. He couldn't make out the councillor's face at that distance but the red coat was unmistakable, the gold at the cuffs and collar badly tarnished but glinting in the midday light.
"He made good time," Talal observed.
"He's had a night, a day, another night, and a morning," Gwenna said scornfully. "It's not more than seventy miles from where we lost him."
"As I said," Talal replied. "Good time."
"Think he cheated?" Laith asked.
"I think he's a leach," Talal said.
"So ... yes," the flier concluded, grinning.
"Remind me not to 'cheat,'" Talal replied, fixing the flier with a steady stare, "the next time you're in a tight place."
"Take him down?" Annick asked. The bowstring was at her ear now, and though the strain must have been immense, she remained as still as stone.
Kaden glanced over the ridge again. At this distance he could barely make out the blindfold wrapping Adiv's eyes.
"Isn't he too far off?"
"Take the shot, Annick," Valyn said, turning to Kaden. "She'll make it. Don't ask me how."
"Stand by," the sniper responded after a pause. "He's passing behind some rock."
Kaden looked from Annick to Valyn, then to the small defile where Adiv had disappeared. After hours of lying on their bellies, waiting and watching, things were abruptly going too fast. He had expected the long wait to be followed by conversation, deliberation, a review of the facts and exchange of ideas. Suddenly, though, with no discussion at all, a man was about to die, a traitor and a murderer, but a man all the same.
The Kettral didn't seem concerned. Gwenna and Valyn were staring over the rock; the demolitions master eagerly, Valyn silent and focused. Laith was trying to make a wager with Talal.
"I'll bet you a silver moon she kills him with the first shot."
"I'm not betting against Annick," the leach replied.
The flier cursed. "What odds will you give me to take the other side? Ten to one for her to miss?"
"Make it fifty," Talal said, resting his bald head against the rock, considering the sky.
"No," Kaden said.
"Not the bet," Kaden said, putting a hand on Valyn's shoulder. "Don't kill him."
Valyn turned from the valley below to look at Kaden. "What?"
"Oh for the sweet love of 'Shael," Gwenna growled. "Who's running this Wing?"
Valyn ignored Gwenna. Instead, his black eyes bored into Kaden, drinking the light. "Adiv's behind all this, Your Radiance," he said. "He and Ut. They're the ones that killed the monks, that tried to kill you, not to mention the fact that they're clearly involved in our father's murder. With Ut gone, Adiv is the ranking commander down there. We kill him, we take a head off the beast."
"I have him again," Annick said.
"Don't shoot," Kaden insisted, shaking his head, trying to order his thoughts. Years earlier, while attempting to recapture a goat, he'd lost his footing above the White River, plunging down the rocks and into the current. It was all he could do to breathe, to keep his head above the roiling surface, to fend off the jagged boulders as they loomed up before him, all the time knowing that he had less than a quarter mile to pull himself clear of the torrent before it plunged him over a cliff. The immediacy of the moment, the inability to pause, to reflect, the absolute necessity of action had terrified him and when he finally caught hold of a fallen limb, clawing his way up and out, the feeling left him shaking on the bank. The Shin had taught him much about patience, but almost nothing of haste. Now, with the eyes of the entire Wing upon him, with the coal-smudged point of Annick's arrow fixed on Adiv, he felt that awful, ineluctable forward rush all over again.
"A few more seconds," Annick said, "and he'll be in the camp. It'll be more difficult to take him then."
"Why?" Valyn demanded, staring at Kaden. "Why do you want him alive?"
Kaden forced his eddying thoughts into a channel, the channel into speech. There would be no second chance to say what he had to say. The arrow, once loosed, would not be called back.
"We know him," he began slowly. "We need him. Back in Annur we can observe who he talks to, who he trusts. He'll help us to unravel the conspiracy."
"Yeah," Gwenna snapped, "and maybe he'll murder a few dozen more people on the way."
"I'm losing him," Annick said. "Decide now."
"Oh for 'Shael's sake," Laith grumbled. "Just kill him already. We can sort out the details later."
"No," Kaden said quietly, willing his brother to see past the present, to understand the logic. "Not yet."
Valyn held Kaden's gaze for a long time, jaw tight, eyes narrowed. Finally he nodded. "Stand down, Annick. We have our orders."
Copyright © 2014 by Brian Staveley