Saving the world may have doomed them all
Keplan reels in the wake of grief and guilt at the blood on his hands. Outside the city walls, however, winter grows fiercer and droughts longer. Alea reforged the fractured world twenty years before--so why is it withering before his eyes? Then, just as he masters being a monarch, a prophet arrives spouting scripture about a One True God. Keplan’s own mother killed the last gods, yet this one matches his description perfectly--and its wrath is about to fall upon Athrolan.
Isolated within the same cold, marble walls as Athrolan’s murderous king, Rih struggles to plot her rebellion leagues away from everything she has ever known. With an unexpected ally, she may have finally found a way to the Mirikin Hetmir--until tragedy strikes. With religious fanatics at their walls, blight in their fields, and a king floundering from addiction, Athrolan spirals out of control. Now Rih must choose between a mad king’s life and her own revolution.
Read the first two scenes below!
37th Day of Lumord, 1252
The fourth night on the trail, wolves circled the tents. At the camp's edge, where cookfires burned, they crept even closer. Rih leaned over, peering past the licking flames at the bright eyes blinking at the edge of the firelight. Already the weather was colder, the air carrying teeth as sharp as those glinting several paces away.
“You'd think they'd be frightened, with this many people,” she signed to the woman beside her.
The guard spared a glance for the predators. “War makes everyone hungry. It's been centuries since wolves were seen this far west. They've probably come to eat our dead,” she turned back to her bowl with a shudder.
Rih winced and looked back to the camp's boundary. The glittering eyes were gone, just a memory lit on her eyes when she closed them. It would take another week to reach Athrolan's capital, more if the river crossing tomorrow went poorly. Even marches as a foot soldier didn't take this long, thousands of pounding feet beating their steady way across the dusty grasslands. It was hard to manage the transition from soldier to dignitary, but the differences in the march made the gulf between the two yawn wider. When she saw that Bimet was through with her food she leaned forward. “I have something to ask of you.”
“Are you certain that's a good idea?” Bimet's gaze moved from Rih to the looming tent of the Emperor's Ambassador. Vibaln shadow paced the tent wall, pausing when a runner appeared.
Rih raised the spear beside her. It was decorative, mostly but the blade was sharp. “I'll be quick,” her fingers curled with ease, forcing casual comfort into the conversation to ease her guard's worry.
The guard's shoulders heaved in a sigh and she fell into step beside her. Fire lit the makeshift road between the linen tents.
Once out of eye line of Vibaln's tent, Rih ducked between the gently waving fabric walls of the larger barrack tents. Guards paced the edge of camp. Already she caught sight of armbands, caught glimpses of a fist, rising, opening. Liberty. She settled on the outcropping, legs tucked beneath her, and raised her face to the soft air. There was little time to acquaint herself with the surrounding women, but there would be chance enough upon arriving in Athrolan, where they would be watched more, but understood less. Bimet found an outcropping still within whistle distance of the camp, but outside the reach of firelight. Of Rih's half-dozen attendants, Bimet was the only one she had known before any of this. Their troops had worked together often, and the red armband she donned on the second day of their march told Rih enough.
“I don't like this,” Bimet signed, lips pursed.
Rih shrugged. “There's no other option. I can't trust letters yet, not until I am safely in Athrolan. There're too many eyes on me. And not only Vibaln's.”
“Then I assume it's important?”
“Fourth Riding is being transferred to a nearby town,” she said by way of answer. “A little one I can't remember the name of.”
Bimet watched the glowing orbs in the trees bob and slink for a moment. “And?”
Beneath Rih's hand the rock was rough, ragged, and gray. Gone was the smooth red of home, the earth stained red by rust or blood. Her fingers curled in the crags, a tether to this changing world. “They're led by *Baniol. I don't want him to leave the town alive. I know there are sympathizers there.” She fixed Bimet with a pointed expression. “Understood?”
“Understood. I'll get the word out now. It'll go out with the morning progress runners tomorrow at dawn.” Bimet rose, hand pressing the small of her back when she straightened. “I'll walk you back to camp.”
Rih shook her head, “I can manage myself. The messengers' tent is on the other side of the camp from ours.”
When Bimet was gone, Rih's attention drifted to the darkness before her. A small piece of her wished, fleetingly, that she could disappear in the makeshift roads and slip away into the night. She would not, no matter how inviting the dark woods and winding trails might be. But for a few moments, she could pretend. In a fortnight's time she would be in a different type of forest, one of cold white stone and looming duties.
Already she missed Ki-elte. Already her heart ached for home. A woman will bleed and die for Ban. She would see them again, in a year, perhaps two, on the field of battle, somehow, she would find a way, find those who would join their cause. In Athrolan, isolation would be their greatest ally. She just hoped she could survive it long enough to see her rebellion through.
Coarse grass pricked her feeet through her silken slippers as she wound back to her tent, beside Vi-baln's. She turned the corner and froze. Vibaln stood in the opening to his tent. Lanterns glowed behind him, gleaming off his broad, bare shoulders. His attention was fixed on her. “You'd best mind your slippers,” he called, grey eyes never leaving hers.
She risked a nod, knowing he knew few, if any, of her signs.
“Wolves and all.”
It was only after she had ducked into the illusion of safety inside her tent that she let herself shudder. Bimet was right to be cautious. The emperor's reach was long. Even here his ambassador served as sharpened claws. This is temporary. He would be gone once she married. Even as Athrolan's bride, however, safety was not guaranteed. Not for the first time, she wondered what His Majesty looked like. How he might act. Would she wish to sew his mouth shut as she wished so often of the baniol? Would he learn her signs? Would he be kind? She drew a long, slow breath. She was a soldier and marriage was war.
38th Day of Lumord, 1252
Keplan staggered into his room, rain puddling on the wool carpet from his coat. A void opened in his chest, swallowing his nerves, his terror, the blood staining his hands. He looked down. A shred of tissue, remnants of a trachea perhaps, clung to the edge of a ragged nail. His empty stomach convulsed. His sleeves, too, were black with blood.
His tore the garment off, tossing it into the hearth with shaking hands. It was too damp, however, to do much more than smother the sullen flames. “Toss it!”
Even Azimir's swears felt like an inadequate response. The wooden box weighed in his purse, and he fished it out. He moved through the parlor to his study and sank into the chair without bothering to light a lamp. What he had become? He did not want the weight of his people on his mind. He did not want the grotesque mantle of divinity, nobility, on his shoulders. He wanted only peace, and Firas, and the distance to escape what he had just done. If holding the world's thoughts in his mind allowed him to end lives, then he would silence them.
All my dreams.
A part of him, the part currently struggling to keep its head above the churning guilt, told him this was not a solution. Not a true one. The box clattered open on the desk's polished top. Inside was a plain waxed pouch, a wide bamboo straw and slim, sharpened stave the length of his thumb. Once each was arrayed across the king's desk, he leaned back. Firas never tolerated his patrons using drugs—Dust or its gentler cousin, black leaf. But it was hard to escape in the Slummer. The beggar had not told him how to use the substance, nor had he bothered to ask, or even wonder until this moment. Fates. This was a mistake, he was sure, a cliff jump from which he could not recover. Azimir's face flashed through his thoughts, followed by Firas's. His lover's expression morphed from tenderness, however, into the knotted snarl of fury, of grief, the one loneliness Keplan could not comfort. Keplan blinked. Blood. Skin and sinew rending beneath his grasping hands. He reached out, awkward but certain as he tapped the powder on to the gleaming wood. Before Firas's echo could talk him out of it, he bent over and inhaled.
He knew enough to pace himself, to circle his room and lock each door before returning to his study. He hated the portraits on the wall, the looming figures he would never live up to, the exhausted gaze of the queen now reduced to burnt bones in the mausoleum. He paced the balcony, emotions flashing through his chest like cannon fire—immediate and violent and inconsequential.
One after another he torn the portraits down, the hard, ancient wood of their frames clattering together. His gaze was caught by a landscape, hanging just above his fireplace, and he paused. A forest. Like home. The frantic energy faded, replaced by something bright, but too sharp for relief or happiness. He sank back into his chair, lidded eyes picking out each detail of the painted tree trunks. A thousand thoughts crashed through his mind, plans and ideas and fears, but not one lingered. Instead his battered psyche was left in unfamiliar silence.