Authors: Brian Staveley
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For my wife
Last time, I made a list of names.
It seemed like the right approach, given that so many people had helped me in so many ways as I was writing
The Emperor's Blades.
This book is even bigger, and so one might expect a longer list, an even greater catalogue of names, but I've grown a bit suspicious of lists.
To make a list in the acknowledgments of a book is to say,
I know my debts.
And the truth is, I don't, not even half of them. For every great idea that I can trace to an actual person, to a specific conversation over beers, there are scores, hundreds of wonderful thoughts that peopleâsome friends, some utter strangers, some in writing, some in casual conversationâhave laid into my arms like little babies.
I've raised these ideas as though they were mine, tried to take good care of them, tucked them tight between the covers of this book. Some of them have lived with me a long time, and I've grown incredibly fond of them, possessive even, so much so that it takes the occasion of this formal acknowledgment to tell the truth:
I don't know where they all came from.
Now, as they head back out into the world, I like to imagine that although they might be frightened at first, they will grow increasingly delighted at the sheer size of it all, the color, the freedom, that they might recognize the majesty of the place they came from. The world is so much larger than one writer's mind, and though these ideas have lived with me awhile, I was never their final home.
By the time Sioan reached the tower's top, stepping from the last stair into the bitter chill of the night, the air in her lungs burned with a fury to match the fire raging in the streets below. The climb had taken hoursâhalf the night, in fact. The guardsmen pacing her showed no visible strain, but then, the Aedolian Guard jogged the steps of Intarra's Spear in full armor once a moon. Keeping pace with a middle-aged Empress and three small children proved no great difficulty. She, on the other hand, felt ready to drop. Each landing invited her to stop, to sit, to lean against the wooden scaffolding that supported the stairs, close her eyes, and collapse into sleep.
I have grown too soft,
she told herself again and again, self-reproach the only thing keeping her wobbling legs moving.
I have become a soft woman living among soft things
In truth, however, she worried more about her children than herself. They had all made the climb to the top of the Spear, but never with such urgency. A normal ascent might span two days, with breaks along the way for rest and refreshment, trays of food and generous mattresses laid out by an advance party of cooks and slaves. Those climbs were pleasant, celebratory; the children were too small for this furious charge. And yet Sioan's husband had insisted. One did not refuse the Emperor of Annur.
This is their city,
Sanlitun told her.
The heart of their empire. This is something they must see
The climb will be the least of the difficulties they will one day face.
had to climb the 'Kent-kissing tower. A Kettral Wing, five hard-eyed men and women in black, had whisked the Emperor to the top of the Spear beneath their massive, terrifying hawk. Sioan understood the urgency. Flames tore through the streets, and her husband needed the vantage to command the response. Annur could not afford to wait while he mounted tens of thousands of steps.
The Kettral had offered to come back for Sioan and the children, but she refused. Sanlitun claimed the birds were tame, but tame was not the same thing as domesticated, and she had no intention of abandoning her children to the talons of a creature that could rend oxen to ribbons with a single swipe.
And so, as the Emperor stood on the roof giving orders to stop the city from burning, Sioan had labored up the stairs, inwardly cursing her husband for insisting they join him, cursing herself for growing old. The Aedolians climbed silently, but the children, despite their initial enthusiasm, struggled. Adare was the oldest and strongest, but even she was only ten, and they hadn't climbed for long before she started to pant. Kaden and Valyn were even worse. The stepsâa human construction built into the clear, ironglass shell of the ancient, impossible structureâwere large for their short legs, and both boys kept tripping, purpling shins and elbows against the wooden treads.
For thirty floors, the wooden steps wound upward through level after level of administrative chambers and luxurious suites. The human builders of those chambers and suites had stopped at thirty floors. Though the shell of the tower stretched on above, so high that it seemed endless, only the stairs continued, spiraling up inside the vast emptiness, up and up, thin and trembling, suspended in the center of the impossible glass column. Hundreds of paces higher, the staircase pierced the solitary prison levelâa single floor built of solid steelâthen continued higher still. During the day, it was like climbing through a column of pure light. At night, however, the surrounding void was disorienting, even frightening. There was only the winding stair, the encompassing dark, and beyond the walls of the spear itself, the angry blaze of Annur burning.
For all her husband's insistence on haste, the city would burn whether or not the four of them were there to watch, and Sioan urged the children to stop each time they reached a landing. Adare, however, would fall down dead before she disappointed her father, and Valyn and Kaden, miserable though they were, trudged on grimly, shooting glances at each other, each clearly hoping the other would quit, neither willing to say the words.
When they emerged, finally, from the trapdoor, all three looked ready to fall over, and though a low wall ringed the top of Intarra's Spear, Sioan put her arms out protectively when the wind gusted. She need not have worried. The AedoliansâFulton and Birch, Yian and Trellâringed the children, guarding, even here, against some constant, unseen threat. She turned to her husband, the curses ready on her tongue, then fell silent, staring at the blaze destroying the city below.
They had seen it from inside the Spear, of courseâthe furious red refracted through the glass wallsâbut from the impossible height of the tower's top, the streets and canals might have been lines etched on a map. Sioan could extend a hand and blot out whole quartersâGraves or Lowmarket, West Kennels or the Docks. She could not, however, blot out the fire. The report, when she started climbing, had put it on the very western edge of Annur, a vicious conflagration confined to half a dozen blocks. During their interminable ascent, however, it had spread, spread horribly, devouring everything west of the Ghost Road and then, fanned by a quick wind off the western sea, lapped its way east toward the far end of the Godsway. She tried to calculate the number of houses burned, the lives lost. She failed.
At the sound of the trapdoor clattering shut, Sanlitun turned. Even after years of marriage, his gaze still gave her pause. Though Adare and Kaden shared their father's burning irises, the fire in the children's eyes was warm, almost friendly, like the light from a winter hearth or the gaze of the sun. Sanlitun's eyes, however, burned with a frigid, unwavering flame, a light with no heat or smoke. No emotion showed on his face. He might have spent half the night watching the stars chart their course through the dark or the moonlight ribbing the waves rather than fighting a conflagration that threatened to consume his city.
Sanlitun considered his children, and Sioan felt Adare straighten at her side. The girl would collapse later, in the privacy of her own chambers, but now, in the presence of her father, legs trembling with the strain of the climb, she refused to lean on her mother. Kaden's eyes were wide as plates as he stared at the city below. He might have been alone on the roof, a child of seven facing the blaze all by himself. Only Valyn took her hand, sliding his small fingers into her grip as he looked from the fire to his father, then back.