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The Providence of Fire

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The Providence of Fire

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Author: Brian Staveley
Publisher: Tor, 2015
Series: Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Dark Fantasy
High Fantasy
Mythic Fiction (Fantasy)
Avg Member Rating:
(26 reads / 16 ratings)


The conspiracy to destroy the ruling family of the Annurian Empire is far from over.

Having learned the identity of her father's assassin, Adare flees the Dawn Palace in search of allies to challenge the coup against her family. Few trust her, but when she is believed to be touched by Intarra, patron goddess of the empire, the people rally to help her retake the capital city. As armies prepare to clash, the threat of invasion from barbarian hordes compels the rival forces to unite against their common enemy. Unknown to Adare, her brother Valyn, renegade member of the empire's most elite fighting force, has allied with the invading nomads. The terrible choices each of them has made may make war between them inevitable.

Between Valyn and Adare is their brother Kaden, rightful heir to the Unhewn Throne, who has infiltrated the Annurian capital with the help of two strange companions. The knowledge they possess of the secret history that shapes these events could save Annur or destroy it.



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 hours--half 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.

Not that he 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 steps--a human construction built into the clear, ironglass shell of the ancient, impossible structure--were 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 level--a single floor built of solid steel--then 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 Aedolians--Fulton and Birch, Yian and Trell--ringed 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 course--the furious red refracted through the glass walls--but 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 quarters--Graves 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 every thing 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.

"You arrived in time," the Emperor said, gesturing to the dark blocks of the city.

"In time for what?" Sioan demanded, her anger threatening to choke her. "To watch ten thousand people burn?"

Her husband considered her for a moment, then nodded. "Among other things," he replied quietly, then turned to the scribe at his side.

"Have them start another fire," he said. "The full length of Anlatun's Way, from the southern border of the city to the north."

The scribe, face intent, bent to the task, brushing the words over the parchment, holding the sheet in the air a moment to dry, rolling it quickly, tucking it into a bamboo tube, then slipping it into a chute running down the center of the Spear. It had taken Sioan half the night to ascend the 'Shael-spawned tower; the Emperor's orders would reach the palace below in a matter of moments.

The command away, Sanlitun turned to his children once again. "Do you understand?" he asked.

Adare bit her lip. Kaden said nothing. Only Valyn stepped forward, squinting against the wind and the fire both. He turned to the long lenses radled in their brackets against the low wall, lifted one, and put it to his eye. "Anlatun's Way isn't burning," he protested after a moment. "The fire is still blocks to the west."

His father nodded.

"Then why..." He trailed off, the answer in his dark eyes.

"You're starting a second fire," Adare said. "To check the fi rst."

Sanlitun nodded. "The weapon is the shield. The foe is the friend. What is burned cannot burn again."

For a long time the whole family stood in silence, staring at the blaze eating its way east. Only Sioan refused a long lens. She could see what she needed to see with her own eyes. Slowly, implacably, the fi re came on, red and gold and horrible until, in a straight line across the western end of the city, a new set of fires burst out, discrete points at first, spreading together until an avenue of flame limned the western edge of the broad street that was Anlatun's Way.

"It's working," Adare said. "The new fire is moving west."

"All right," Sioan said abruptly, understanding at last what her husband wanted them to see, what he wanted them to learn; desperate, suddenly, to spare her children the sight and the knowledge both. "They have witnessed enough."

She reached out to take the long lens from Adare, but the girl snatched it away, training it on the twin fires once more.

Sanlitun met his wife's glare, then took her hand in his own. "No," he said quietly. "They have not."

It was Kaden, finally, who realized.

"The people," he said, gesturing. "They were running away, running east, but now they've stopped."

"They're trapped," Adare said, dropping her long lens and spinning to confront her father. "They're trapped. You have to do something!"

"He did," Valyn said. He looked up at the Emperor, the child's hope horrible in his gaze. "You already did, right? An order. Before we got here. You warned them somehow...."

The boy trailed off, seeing the answer in those cold, blazing eyes.

"What order would I give?" Sanlitun asked, his voice soft and unstoppable as the wind. "Thousands of people live between those two fires, Valyn. Tens of thousands. Many will have fled, but how would I reach those who have not?"

"But they'll burn," Kaden whispered.

He nodded slowly. "They are burning even now."

"Why," Sioan demanded, not sure if the tears in her eyes were for the citizens screaming unheard in their homes so far below, or for her children, staring, horrifi ed, at the distant flames. "Why did they need to see this?"

"One day the empire will be theirs."

"Theirs to rule, to protect, not to destroy!"

He continued to hold her hand, but didn't look away from the children.

"They will not be ready to rule it," he said, his eyes silent as the stars, "until they are willing to see it burn."

Copyright © 2015 by Brian Staveley


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