Sneak Peek: Read an excerpt from The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley

The Providence of Fire by Brian StaveleyThe first seven chapters of The Providence of Fire are now up on Tor.com for your reading pleasure! But we know that’s not enough of this awesome world. So we asked Brian to pick a chapter from later in the book, so you can see what kind of trouble Adare, one of our favorite characters, is getting into. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 18 of The Providence of Fire, by Brian Staveley.

Chapter 18

Olon straddled the blue-brown shallows of the northern end of Lake Baku like a gracile thousand-legged spider of stone, her body an oblong island a few hundred paces offshore, her legs the narrow quays stretching into the shimmering water and the slender stone bridges reaching toward the north bank. Even seen through the blindfold, the narrow towers and shapely domes were far more elegant than Annur’s stark angles and rigid lines, but Adare couldn’t spare much attention for the architecture, not with two score armed men blocking the bridge on which she stood.

The men weren’t uniformed, not that she could make out, anyway, but it was clear enough from the neat ranks, from the well-polished weapons and obvious military discipline that they weren’t a band of thugs out to rob pilgrims. They might have been legionaries, only they weren’t wearing imperial armor, and besides, none of the armies had a legion stationed in Olon. Which meant the Sons of Flame. Which meant the reports Adare had heard were true. She wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or terrified.

She had thought, at first, that the men were just running a routine patrol on the bridge, checking carts and carriages, maybe strong-arming money out of the merchants, some sort of “levy” to support the faithful. As she approached, however, caught up in the knot of pilgrims, she realized they were waiting—forty or fifty of them, well-armed and alert—just waiting. Adare glanced over her shoulder, half expecting to find another army marching on the city, an attacking force that might warrant the presence of so many armed men, but there was no army. Only the stragglers of her own pilgrimage alongside a few local cart drivers lashing ponderous water buffalo.

“Looks as though the light lovers think they own the bridges,” Nira groused, spitting onto the flagstones.

Adare nodded nervously. She’d expected the Sons of Flame to be hidden away somewhere, holed up in alleys and cellars, not standing at attention athwart the main bridge into the city. Ameredad was either very bold, very stupid, or both. Such an open display of force risked the full retaliation of Annur, at least once il Tornja heard of it.

On the bright side, she thought bleakly, at least I don’t need to go hunting around for them in the taverns. At least they’re here.

She reached up to adjust her blindfold, squared her shoulders, then moved forward with the mass of gold-robed faithful, just another pilgrim returning to the city where the faith was born. The soldiers, younger men mostly, some with onion-pale skin, others dark as charred wood, watched the throng approach. Adare waited for them to move aside, to allow the devout into the city, but they did not move. Instead, when the first wagons reached the height of the bridge, a broad-shouldered man with a neck like a dock piling stepped forward. He must have been well into his fifth decade, though the years had done nothing to chip away at the heavy muscle of his arms and chest.

“Stop,” he said, voice loud enough he didn’t bother to raise a hand. The pilgrimage clattered to a halt in a welter of confused questions, those behind demanding answers from their friends nearer the top of the bridge. Adare’s hands were slippery with sweat. She forced herself to leave them at her side, not to wipe them on her robes. She felt light-headed, as though she might pass out. It would be a disaster, of course. If she fell, the pilgrims who came to her aid would remove the blindfold, and then she was dead.

Keep standing, she told herself silently. Stay on your ’Kent-kissing feet. The Sons of Flame hadn’t moved, but their commander was running his gaze over the golden-robed men and women at the front of the line, his mouth twisted in a scowl.

“Where is the Malkeenian?” he asked finally.

Ice slid down Adare’s spine. She wanted to flee and fight all at the same time. The bridge balustrade was only a few paces off. She couldn’t see what lay beneath, but if she hurled herself off of it….

“Keep still, ya dumb wench,” Nira murmured, voice pitched for Adare’s ears alone. “And keep your mouth shut.”

Legs trembling beneath her, Adare stood still, heart slamming against her ribs. Suddenly, her blindfold and backstory seemed pathetic, a flimsy shield against so many gazes, so many curious minds. Of course someone recognized her, recognized or suspected that the tall young woman traveling alone, the one hiding her eyes, might be more than she seemed. Despite Nira’s admonition, Adare was ready to run, to leap into the lake below, when a strong hand took her by the elbow, the fingers like steel.

“What…” she cried, breaking off when she twisted to find Lehav holding her.

He smiled grimly. “Let’s go.”

“I’m not—”

“Of course you’re not,” he said, shoving her forward. “Let’s go.”

Adare glanced over at Nira, hoping, praying that the woman might do something, but Nira just watched, eyes like slits in her wizened face, then gave an almost imperceptible shake of the head.

By the time Adare had recovered her wits enough to struggle, she stood in the wide space between the Sons of Flame and the pilgrims, Lehav still at her side, still holding her by the arm, his grip so tight she could feel the bruises forming. The bridge had gone silent. Hundreds of stares bored into her, most of them confused, some already angry. For a fleeting moment she thought she might be able to bluff her way through, then discarded the idea as stupidity, insanity. Somehow Lehav knew her, knew who she was. The only hope was to put a brave face on the thing, to do what she had come to do.

With her free hand she reached up and pulled the blindfold free.

“I am Adare hui’Malkeenian,” she said, “daughter of the murdered Emperor, princess of Annur, and the Minister of Finance. I have come here to set right a wrong, and to forge again a bond that has been broken between my family and the Divine Church of Intarra.”

The pilgrims stared, shocked. Even the soldiers looked somewhat taken aback. Lehav, however, just snorted.

“Nice speech. Are you finished?”

“No,” she said, squaring her shoulders, standing a little straighter. “I am not finished. I came to speak with Vestan Ameredad, not to be manhandled by one of his minions.”

That was when the Aedolians struck.

At first she thought the pilgrims behind her were just voicing their confusion and outrage. There were shouts, cries that could have been accusation or anger, the clatter of hooves. Then she saw the faces of the soldiers gathered around her, the sudden surprise and fear in the eyes of the Sons of Flame, followed by the desperate scramble to draw weapons. A scramble ending in failure.

At first, all Adare knew was that two men, both mounted, both swinging swords as long as her arm, were riding straight into the mass of Intarran soldiers, cutting furiously into the men on foot. She saw a head split open and an arm severed at the elbow, watched one man raise his sword only to see the weapon smashed straight into his face. Their commander seemed as confused as the rest, struggling to pull his blade free while keeping his grip on her arm. Adare turned just in time to see Fulton lean over the pommel of his saddle, swinging his broadblade in a great arc that opened the huge soldier from his neck to his chest. Blood, hotter than monsoon rain, splattered Adare’s face, and then she was free.

“Quickly, my lady,” Fulton said, wheeling his horse to a stop, reaching down with his free hand. “Into the saddle before they regroup.”

Adare’s mind reeled, but her body took over. She seized the Aedolian’s hand, dragging herself up onto the horse even as the Sons of Flame closed around them again. A part of her, the part that wasn’t drenched in blood and terror, noted that Fulton looked thinner, older, his eyes and cheeks sunken and haggard. How long had the two men been following her? Why? The questions were irrelevant in the midst of the chaos, inane, but her mind had retreated from the blood soaking her robes, from the screaming of the injured, from the shapes of the shattered men splayed on the flagstones. For a moment she thought she might start singing, whether from euphoria or madness, she couldn’t be sure.

It looked like they would make it. Birch was holding back the Sons while Fulton spurred his horse to a gallop, charging straight back through the ranks of the pilgrims. We’re going to break free, Adare thought. The realization tasted like clean air, fresh and cold in her lungs. We’re getting out.

Then, with no warning, the horse was screaming, tumbling forward, and she was off, flying through the air, flying. Flying, then not.

***

Ameredad’s minions knew their work, bustling her through the ancient city’s bafflement of alleyways and side streets with businesslike efficiency. Adare could barely walk, the gash on her head throbbed, and her vision was hazy, blurry. She wanted to ask about Fulton and Birch, to know whether they were still alive, but someone had stuffed a foul-tasting gag in her mouth, and between the stench and the dizziness, it was all she could do not to vomit.

The small party turned and backtracked so often that Adare quickly lost all sense of direction, and after a short while she quit trying to keep track of where she was and paid attention to the city itself, hoping to learn something that might save her life. The reek of whitefish, turmeric, and smoke filled the twisting alleys, and the streets and windows were alive with barter and banter. Still, something about the place seemed moribund, as though it had died years earlier.

The buildings were as graceful as they were venerable, but most had begun to crumble, mortar and stone falling away, marring the sweeping curves with ugly, ragged holes. Those that had not yet submitted to the ultimate indignity of collapse were rough and battered, paint and plaster stripped by decades of storm and neglect. Half the walls in the city looked badly in need of repair. It wasn’t quite a ruin—perhaps it never would be, considering the lucrative trade that passed through it—and yet, Olon was a city with a dagger in her heart.

A dagger we put there, Adare realized grimly. A wound dealt by the Malkeenians.

Perhaps Terial hui’Malkeenian hadn’t intended to gut the capital of the ancient kingdom of Kresh when he founded his nascent empire, but neither had he chosen it as his ruling seat. Money followed power, and after the government shifted to Annur, Olon began to crumble. Canal and lake trade kept her alive, along with the voracious appetite of the capital, but the once-palatial residences along the water had been converted into taverns, brothels, and flophouses for wagon-drivers and sailors weary from the rough passage across Lake Baku. A few stubborn descendants of the old aristocratic houses squatted inside familial manses they could no longer maintain, while thieves and orphans, rats and wind reclaimed the rest.

It looked like a miserable place to live, but a perfect city to defend. As she was dragged through the streets, Adare glimpsed no fewer than ten pairs of Ameredad’s guards, hard men with blades and bows lounging in the shadows or blocking the heads of narrow lanes. They wore no insignia or livery, certainly nothing to connect them to the Sons of Flame, and she might have mistaken them for common street toughs had it not been for the silent nods and curt gestures they exchanged with her captors as she passed.

The whole ’Kent-kissing city is this bastard’s fortress, Adare thought bleakly as she stumbled over the uneven cobbles, trying to keep her feet. She tried to imagine an Annurian legion taking the place, and failed. Olon’s maze of collapsing buildings and piled rubble would render legionary tactics and formations pointless. The Sons of Flame could blend with the local population, hiding in attics and cellars, sniping from open windows before disappearing into their ancient warren.

For the first time Adare realized that Ameredad’s choice in coming to this particular city might have been influenced by more than simple religious devotion. Il Tornja might be a brilliant general, but this was no city for generals. A thousand men could die in Olon’s alleyways without anyone noticing. A thousand men, or one very stupid princess.

***

Despite the low ceiling and stone, the ponderous walls and lack of windows, the small room—a basement below a basement beneath a basement, judging by the number of stairs they had descended—looked more like a study than an abattoir. Rolled maps and piles of parchment, letters and supply lists, waited in tidy piles on the wide table. Someone had stacked a few crates neatly in the corner, the topmost of which was stamped INK. A tattered, moldy map of Olon was tacked up on the far wall, although Adare couldn’t make out much but the bridges and the dark outline of the island itself. The place spoke of caution, deliberation, and resolve, and the man seated across from her was clearly more than just some power-hungry, up-jumped soldier.

“You understand,” Vestan Ameredad said, considering Adare bluntly over the rough wooden table, “that many of the faithful, probably most, will want to see you burned.”

“I am a Malkeenian princess,” Adare replied, trying to keep her voice steady. “Hundreds saw me on the bridge. If you kill me, you will have a brief civil war followed by the annihilation of your faith.”

Ameredad shrugged. “The faithful would call your death justice, justice for Uinian. As for the rest, we are all in Intarra’s hands.”

“Intarra didn’t take such good care of Uinian.”

Ameredad frowned, but he didn’t respond, his silence leaving Adare to wonder if she had scored a point or sealed her own doom. If the man decided to kill her, the cramped, windowless room was as good a place as any. Aside from the two soldiers who had dragged her in moments before, no one knew that she was there. The heavy stone walls would blot out her screams. Her blood would drain out readily enough through the rough iron grate set into the floor.

He’s not going to kill you, she told herself firmly, suppressing a shudder. Not here, at least.

“What were you doing in Annur?” Adare asked, trying to seize back some scrap of initiative. “Why did you disguise yourself? Join the pilgrimage?”

Ameredad raised an eyebrow. “It would seem that I should be asking the questions, and you should be answering them.”

“And yet, so far all you’ve done is threaten me.”

“No. It is you who threaten us,” the soldier said, voice quiet, but hard. “You struck at Uinian, at our priest in the heart of our temple—”

“Uinian was a ’Kent-kissing leach,” Adare cut in, suddenly furious in spite of her fear. “He lied to you, to his entire congregation, and you all believed him. You should thank me for unveiling him, for seeing him killed.”

Ameredad studied her. “That much, perhaps, is true. Unfortunately for both of us, you didn’t stop there, did you?”

“The Accords,” Adare said, watching him warily.

“Accords.” He shook his head. “What a sweet little word. Like calling a knife to the gut a tickle.”

“The Accords were intended to find a new balance between Intarra’s Church and the Unhewn Throne, one that—”

Ameredad cut her off without raising his voice. “The Accords were laws, laws you made, to humiliate the Church, cut off her revenue, and destroy the force that defended her. The new Chief Priest is your puppet, and this balance you describe is the balance of a tyrant with her boot on the throat of a conquered foe.” His raised his brows. “Do I have it more or less right?”

Adare hesitated, trying to see past both her anger and her fear. When she planned for this moment, she had imagined Ameredad to be either a religious zealot, ignorant of the serpentine twists of imperial politics, or a shrewd opportunist like Uinian, a man more interested in his own glory and advancement than the fate of the thousands who followed him. Apparently, her imagination had failed her. She could stick with her rehearsed speech, but that speech looked likely to see her burned before a vengeful mob. She took a deep breath, marshaled her thoughts, then nodded.

“You have it right,” she said. “The Accords were a play to cut your Church off at the knees.”

The man leaned back in his chair, clearly surprised.

“And you’ve come here now, why?” he asked slowly. “To finish what you started?”

Adare shook her head. “To fix it. To make it right.”

“To make it right,” Ameredad said, looking past Adare to the map on the wall. He frowned, as though the layout of the streets and alleyways displeased him. “It doesn’t make sense. You could retract the Accords from the Dawn Palace. Retract or amend them. You didn’t need to come here to meet with me. You certainly didn’t need to walk all this way with a blindfold over your eyes.” He turned back to her, fixing her with a hard stare. “You are still lying, and each lie brings you closer to your death.”

The words were mild, but then, Adare had not yet heard the soldier raise his voice.

“I am not lying,” she said slowly, “but there is more.”

He watched her for a moment, then, in a fluid motion, drew his belt knife. The blade gleamed in the fickle lights of candle and lantern, and for a moment he considered the steel, turning it back and forth, watching the flame and shadow play over it.

Adare stared, still as a cobra in the grip of the wooden flute’s soft song. He’s not going to burn me, she realized. He’s not going to wait that long. She imagined the wide map with her blood splattered across it.

Ameredad, however, just gestured with the point of his knife toward a thick candle on the edge of the table, then flicked his wrist, scoring a line in the wax a finger’s width from the top.

“You have until that line to talk,” he said, “and then we are finished.”

Adare tried to collect her thoughts. There wasn’t much wax remaining above the notch, and the case she had to put before the soldier was a complex one. There would be no second chances and there could be no missteps.

“Ran il Tornja murdered my father.”

Ameredad’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t speak. Adare glanced at the candle, then plunged ahead.

“The kenarang is at the center of a conspiracy to remove the Malkeenian line from power.”

“I serve Intarra,” Ameredad said, “not the Malkeenian line.”

“You might want to rethink that position. My family is not il Tornja’s only target. We might not even be his main one. He wants your Church gone, destroyed, scrubbed from the face of the empire.”

“Why would the kenarang concern himself with domestic matters of religious freedom?”

“Because he wants to be emperor, not kenarang, and he understands that there are only two entities with the power to resist him.” She held up two fingers. “My family, and your Church.” She frowned. “I should say, we had the power to resist him, but he has already stripped most of that away. I did not draft the Accords alone, nor was I the sole author of the strike against Uinian. Who do you think brought me to your temple in the first place? Who do you think told me that your Chief Priest killed my father?”

Ameredad studied her over steepled fingers. “So you allowed yourself to be used. If this is true.”

“I was a fool,” Adare agreed, shoving down her pride. “I spent years hearing about Uinian’s hatred for my family, and when the time came, I believed what I was told.”

“And your judgment was further impaired when you made yourself the kenarang’s whore.”

Adare stifled a sharp retort. Though she had hoped word of her romantic liaison would remain in the Dawn Palace, she hadn’t really expected as much.

“My personal mistakes are beside the point here….”

“It seems to me that they are exactly the point,” Ameredad replied. “Even if I accept every article of your tale, look what I am left with: you admit that you were a willing participant in the murder of my priest….”

“A leach,” Adare insisted.

Ameredad waved the interruption aside. “You admit that you spent time in the bed of the kenarang, the man behind both Uinian’s murder and your father’s, and you admit conspiring to ruin Intarra’s one true Church with your Accords. Even if you are honest, you have proven yourself a fool and a foe to the faithful. Why would I do anything but burn you?”

“Because if you burn me, you will fail,” Adare said bleakly. “Il Tornja will have turned his two chief foes against each other, and he will win.”

“We will face il Tornja when the time comes,” Ameredad said. “This city is better defended than you realize.”

Adare thought back to the pairs of soldiers blocking the alleyways above, to the warren of streets and ruins. It could well prove the end of an Annurian legion, especially if the local population sided with the Sons of Flame. Il Tornja would have to raze the place to dislodge them, and razing an Annurian city would be insanity for a usurper of the throne. Not since Terial the Short laid siege to Mo’ir three centuries earlier had an Annurian emperor attacked his own citizens, and that hadn’t ended well for Terial.

“I have an army,” Ameredad continued. “I have a growing stock of weapons and armor. I have a fortified position, and the tactical and strategic experience to properly defend it. You have…what? The dress on your back, and a sad story about the murder of one tyrant at the hands of another. You want something and you can give nothing. You are a highborn beggar, nothing more.”

Adare smiled. “I have the eyes.”

“I am far from convinced,” Ameredad replied, “of the divinity of those eyes.”

“That’s a shame. There are three players in this game: my family, your Church, and the kenarang. We each have our followings. If you burn me tomorrow, il Tornja will spin an outraged tale of your treachery. He will explain in great detail and with even more righteous anger how you abducted and murdered me. The millions of Annurians loyal to my family, instead of siding with you, will become his followers. You might hold Olon, but if you attempt to leave it, you will find yourself awash in a sea of enemies. For every mile you travel, men will lame your horses and burn their fields to deny you food. They will tear up the roads before you and drive away their livestock.” Adare shook her head. “Il Tornja won’t even need his legions. Which means you will stay here, trapped with your few followers on this sad, decaying island until you starve or the kenarang destroys you at his leisure.”

Ameredad frowned. “Well, that’s a dire tale. And you offer what, to prevent it?”

“Legitimacy. With me at your side, il Tornja won’t be able to brand you traitors. Lovers of Intarra and loyal citizens of the empire alike will unite behind us. It will be the kenarang, not the Sons of Flame, who finds himself trapped behind the walls of his city.”

“Loyal citizens of the empire,” the soldier said, scorn in his voice as he repeated the words.

Adare stared. “My father was a capable Emperor and a just man. For every disgruntled priest during his reign, there were fifty farmers and merchants, nobles and soldiers, all grateful for the peace and prosperity he brought. What is it about Annur that makes you hate it?”

The soldier studied her from across the table. Adare tried to remain still, to keep her face calm, but now that her words were spent, fear flowed in to fill the space left behind, and she realized she was clutching at the fabric of her dress, wringing it desperately between her fingers. With an effort she loosed the cloth, then smoothed it, running her hands over the wrinkles again and again.

“I grew up in Annur,” Ameredad said finally. “Didn’t know my father, barely knew my mother—the swelling pox killed her when I was six—raised my younger brother myself for three years, until someone put a rusty chisel through his eye and tossed him into the canal….”

Adare opened her mouth to say something, but no words came, and the soldier waved her to silence.

“A kid in the Quarter…” he went on, voice flat. “You learn early on to kill, to steal, to fuck, or to hide. Hopefully all four, if you want to stay alive. Even those skills won’t save you if you don’t know when to do what. My brother could steal and hide, he could fuck and kill, but he made a mistake somewhere. I never learned what it was, but he read someone wrong, stole when he should have killed, killed when he should have fucked. The point is, back in the Quarter we didn’t see so much of your father’s fine justice.

“I was lucky. Smarter and stronger than most of the others, but mostly lucky. The day I joined up with the legions, I thought I’d finally made it, got out for good. Three meals a day, free clothes, nice bright spear, and a cause to fight for. I held on to that spear and that cause all the way down to the Waist, where I spent six years killing jungle tribesmen who had even less than the poor bastards back in the Quarter.” He shrugged, the indifference of the gesture belying the words. “I was good at it, kept moving up the ranks until I commanded an entire legion.”

He shook his head. “I never regretted killing the men and women. They’re beasts down there, worse than beasts. A wolf will kill you, gnaw the marrow from your bones, but the jungle tribes? They’ll take the skin off a man one strip at a time. They’ll pull every tooth in your mouth while you choke on your own blood. They need to be put down, and I was good at putting them down. When we started burning villages, though, when we started putting spears in children…” He broke off, staring at nothing.

“That’s when you quit.”

“That’s when I found a purer cause,” he said finally, staring at her.

Adare watched him for a long time, trying to find a shape for her thoughts. “Intarra’s light burns bright,” she said finally, “but we live here, on the earth, in the mud.”

“That’s no reason not to reach for her flame.”

“And in this world,” Adare replied quietly, “there is no fire without fuel. No flame without ash.” She shook her head. “I am not a goddess, but I am a princess of Annur, and Annur is real. It is here. My hands are bloody, but unlike those of the goddess we both serve, I can do real work with them. I can hold a sword or a scepter. I can help people, real people right now, but not without the Sons.”

Ameredad watched her awhile, then looked over at the candle. The soft wax had folded over his notch and the flame wavered in the cool draft.

“All right,” he said finally.

Adare let out a long, unsteady breath. “All right.”

He turned back to her. “I can save you, but your men, those Aedolians…they killed eleven of the Sons.”

“No,” Adare said, jarred from her tiny moment of relief. “They were only trying to help me. They were doing what they swore to do.”

Ameredad laughed grimly. “We’ve all sworn to do something. They killed my men. If I am to have any credibility before my people…if we are to have any credibility, they have to burn.”

Adare felt as though a stone were blocking her throat. “They are good men,” she managed finally.

“As you said,” Ameredad replied slowly, “there is no flame without ash.”

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