The fifth novel of the galaxy-spanning Sun Eater series merges the best of space opera and epic fantasy, as Hadrian Marlowe continues down a path that can only end in fire.
The galaxy is burning.
With the Cielcin united under one banner, the Sollan Empire stands alone after the betrayal of the Commonwealth. The Prophet-King of the Cielcin has sent its armies to burn the worlds of men, and worse, there are rumors … whispers that Hadrian Marlowe is dead, killed in the fighting.
But it is not so. Hadrian survived with the help of the witch, Valka, and together they escaped the net of the enemy having learned a terrible truth: the gods that the Cielcin worship are real and will not rest until the universe is dark and cold.
What is more, the Emperor himself is in danger. The Prophet-King has learned to track his movements as he travels along the borders of Imperial space. Now the Cielcin legions are closing in, their swords poised to strike off the head of all mankind.
Release date: December 13, 2022
Print pages: 544
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Ashes of Man
THE SAILS OF CHARON
Day was breaking over dark waters, Colchis’s white sun still low and golden at the horizon. Salt wind blew lank hair from my brow, stung my face.
In the end, I had not left Gibson’s tomb with Valka and the others. They had gone down to the old camp by the shore, had left me kneeling in the dirt before the new-raised cairn. The oldest tradition held that the body of any lord must—after the cathars had washed it, embalmed it, and cut away the organs for the canopic jars—lie in state for three days, and that his heirs should keep vigil the while, sleeping in shifts if they slept at all. Gibson once told me my father had done it alone, kneeling in the chapel at Devil’s Rest before the body of Lord Timon, my grandfather. I could remember my grandmother, Lady Fuchsia, lying in the purple chamber set aside for her. We had not been permitted to see her, though we had. It was in that violet chamber that I first met Death, and the stench of her has never left me.
We did not have three days for the proper vigil, nor any cathars or canopic jars. That was just as well. Palatine Gibson plainly was, but he had died a scholiast, and the Strictures of their order prescribed that all scholiasts were to be burned, their ashes scattered to the winds.
No ashes, as there was no time.
I had taken all the time we had.
Had I slept there, kneeling on the hard-packed earth? Or only dreamed?
I had seen a different ocean, had watched it recede along a shore of crushed bone. Mirrored knights stood silent sentinel about a bed draped in red silk in which a man lay dying. I lay in that same bed, Selene beside me. Selene and Valka. Valka alone.
A woman with eyes like black suns sat draped in cloth of gold. The vision turned, and Dorayaica, the Shiomu Elusha, strode along beneath the colonnades of the Eternal City, Vati and Attavaisa beside it. It turned again: the Emperor’s face smiled down at me, then—as if in a kaleidoscope—split in two. I blinked, and saw Alexander’s face and mine looking back at me, each of us on golden thrones. The ocean receded again, waters running from my advancing feet, and I stared out into darkness. A square of darkness framed in light, blacker than anything I’d ever seen, blacker than the stones of Annica, blacker than the Howling Dark.
A window onto night.
Why should a darkened window fill me with such fear and sorrow?
Through it all, I remember the salt wind raking, tousling the tall grass that grew along the black edge of the bluffs. Whitecaps glowed orange in the night off the glow of the gas giant, Atlas, whose limn hung low over the horizon, vaster than any moon.
“It’s time to go, Had.” A hand clapped my shoulder, and turning from Gibson’s cairn I blinked up at Pallino. The old myrmidon grinned down at me, grizzled as when I first knew him, the scuffed old leather patch obscuring one eye. “You been at this long enough.”
“I didn’t hear you coming, old man,” I said, going to one knee.
It was only then that I remembered Pallino was dead, and found myself staring up at empty air. I shut my eyes, opened them again.
I was alone.
My knees ached from the kneeling, and my whole body complained as I struggled to rise. My ruined shoulder protested, and I used my left arm—the arm with hollow bones—to push myself to my feet. I could scarce remember when last I had been so tired. It must have been that first night aboard the Ascalon, after Valka and I had escaped from Akterumu. Thinking of Akterumu, of Pallino—who had died there with some many thousand others—and of Dorayaica’s coronation darkened the newborn day, as though gray clouds buried the pale sun.
But I reached out and laid my hand—my three-fingered, right hand—upon the top stone of Gibson’s cairn. No words came to me, no final speech, no promise. What could I say to him that I had not already said? That he did not already know?
It was time.
Valka saw me returning before any of the others. I wondered if she had been sitting up for me in the old camp, sleepless as I’d remained sleepless beside Gibson’s tomb. Wordless, she embraced me, cool fingers on my face. We drew apart, and she asked, “Are you all right?”
Looking round I saw Imrah standing—so like Siran—in the door to one of the dormitory pods my Red Company had left upon the beach centuries before. “Too many ghosts,” I said, and smiled.
“You look like hell,” Valka said, drawing my attention away from the young Keeper of Thessa.
“It was a long night,” I said, putting my hands on her shoulders. I did my best to smile once more.
Valka stepped back. Her golden eyes swept me up and down, evaluating. “You should clean yourself up. I’ve got most everything on the boat. Imrah says we can leave when you’re ready.”
“I am ready,” I said. “I can wash on the Ascalon. We shouldn’t linger. The Empire knows we’re here?”
Valka gave a small nod. “They must. I had to use my name to call for Gibson’s doctor. They’re bound to notice.”
I looked out to sea, toward the gray shape on the brightening horizon that was the isle of Racha. Presently I turned to Imrah. “I fear I’ve brought the hammer down on you and your people,” I told her.
The Sevrastene native swore an oath in her language whose meaning I could well guess, and she gestured as if to throw something away. “They will not bother us. It’s you they want.”
“All the more reason for us to go now,” I said to her and Valka both. I would never forgive myself if any harm befell the islanders.
“What will you do?” Imrah asked.
Valka and I held one another’s gaze a long moment then, neither speaking. We had rehearsed our plan before, several times. I had intended to go straight to Aea and the athenaeum at Nov Belgaer after we visited Thessa and the other islands, but the discovery that Gibson was alive—against all hope and reason—had shredded what thin resolve we had. After so many years alone aboard the Ascalon, after that black day on Eue and all that I had suffered on Dharan-Tun, I had not been able to bring myself to return to the Imperium proper, to place myself in their power, at their mercy.
I had not wanted to leave Gibson.
Still, I had always known I must.
Not taking my eyes from Valka, I answered Imrah, saying, “We’ll leave directly for the city. They probably won’t expect that. I mean to land at Nov Belgaer and speak to the scholiasts . . .”
My voice trailed off as I remembered Gibson’s muttering in his fevered dreams. He had spoken of his son—his true son—and thought me him. He had cried out in turn for Alois and Livy, and had thought he was on Belusha, the most feared of the Emperor’s prison planets.
“Is Arrian still the primate at the athenaeum?” I asked.
“Arrian?” Imrah asked, dark brows knitting. It was not impossible. Tor Arrian had been young enough when last I’d come to Colchis, and he was of the Aventine House, of the Blood Imperial. The centuries would have weathered him, but they need not have cut him down. “The name sounds familiar? The Emperor’s cousin or some such? We don’t have much dealing with city folk, but I think that’s right.”
By announcing myself to one of the Emperor’s own family, I would make matters that much harder for the Chantry and those other forces within the Imperium that would leap at the opportunity to make me disappear.
The governor-general in Aea had a telegraph containing a particle directly entangled with one aboard the Emperor’s vessel. I would be able to transmit a message directly to Caesar via the line he had given me when I first sailed to Colchis, without having to speak through the Council or any of the various ministries. I had had such a particle aboard the Tamerlane, but the Ascalon had none.
“My arrest must be as public as possible,” I continued.
“Arrest?” Imrah asked, confused. Doubtless she thought we were all on the same side, that it was all so simple.
“My detainment, let’s say,” I replied.
Valka and I were supposed to be dead, lost fighting the Cielcin. If Dorayaica had been true to its word—and I had no reason to doubt its truth—Lorian Aristedes would have arrived on Forum bearing the news of Cielcin unification, of the new, Pale empire raised against our red one.
Chess pieces moved in my mind.
Our survival would be a shock.
I was already shaking my head. “I need to see Arrian. I have questions.”
Valka took a step nearer me. “About Gibson?”
I made to smooth back my matted hair, but the sight of the dirt on my hands stopped me. My fingers were crusted with dried blood where the knuckles had cracked during the previous day’s exertions, and thin scratches covered my forearms, red against the paler scars. My whole body ached. “He didn’t tell me who he was.”
“Does it matter?” Valka asked, eyebrows coming together. “You know who he was to you.”
I threw up my hands as if to encompass the whole island. “How did he pay for this? That hospital pod must have cost ten million marks at least! And to ship it here without attracting notice! Don’t you wonder?” In fact, I wonder now if she did not already know. Many were the nights when I had retired early, and it was she who had stayed awake with the old man, talking into Colchis’s overlong nights. That thought did not occur to me then and there.
“Imrah!” a rough, masculine voice called from the water’s edge. “The doctor wants to know when we’re putting out!” It was the voice of Imrah’s brother, Alvar, who stood with hands cupped about his mouth on the stone pier the Rachan villagers had built out from the shoreline.
Siran’s great-great-grandchildren . . .
Something of the new light of day haloed the two of them, Imrah and Alvar, and I smiled in the brief instant between his shout and her reply. Some good had come from the Red Company, from my actions, however small. Siran was dead, but had died happy, had left this family behind. Lorian yet lived, and Switch—I did not doubt that he had died so very long ago. Had he died happy, despite my actions? My smile faltered to realize that in sending him away, I had spared him death at Akterumu. Might I have spared all the others, if I had driven them each away as well?
“I said the doctor wants to know when we’re heading back! She wants to get home!”
“Tell her it won’t be long!” Imrah shot back. “Valka says she packed near everything in the night. Lord Marlowe’s come down off the mountain.”
Alvar paused on the pier a moment, noticed me standing with the two women for the first time. “You all right, lord?”
“What’s left to pack?” I asked Valka.
“Just your things,” she said. “I got most of it together, waiting for you. I left out what I thought you’d need. You really should clean up, you know. ’Twill not take long.”
She was probably right. I only nodded weakly in reply, brushed past her and Imrah and into the pod Valka and I had shared with Gibson. Valka had said it was the same pod we’d stayed in when the Red Company came to Thessa the first time, but I could not remember. Unlike the majority of the pods—which were bunk houses that slept fifty each—ours had been intended for use by the high officers, and contained only four bedrooms clustered about a common room that opened on the veranda the locals had built up around the old prefabricated unit. It had been our home for the too-short years we’d spent on Colchis, and standing on its threshold I felt certain I would never see it again.
I had needed to come to Colchis. For Siran, for Gibson, to feel right again and whole. Siran’s grave had—in my mind—become a grave for all the Red Company. Now that I had built the graves upon the whole of the island’s crown, and buried Gibson, too, I found I had no reason to remain. I was not even sure I could bear to climb back up the cliffs to the funeral grounds.
It was time to go.
Despite what she had said, Valka had packed most of my things. Two black trunks stood stacked, closed at the foot of the rumpled bed we’d shared, a bag half-open atop them. Stripped of the detritus of our lives, the room felt barren, lifeless, and larger than ever it had before. Fresh clothes lay out for me on the gray bedsheets. Not the knee-breeches and linen tunics I’d worn in the style of the local fisherfolk, but the old Marlowe blacks. Feeling the pressure of time, I skinned out of my soiled clothes—leaving them in a trail behind me—and staggered into the bath. My scarred reflection greeted me, black hair shot with silver at temples and forelock. Scraped and sweating from the long night and the labor of building Gibson’s cairn, I still looked better than I had done in as long as I could remember. Gone was the skeleton man that had crawled out of the Ascalon and capered in the sun and salt spray. In his place, a man stood neither old nor young, eyes deep and distant as the sea. New muscle had returned to wasted limbs, but his scars were numberless, and his motions clumsy and never without pain. The marks of alien talons slashed his left cheek, and yet it seemed in the dawn light that he bore them nobly.
The ugliness of the world does not fade, nor are fear and grief made less by time, nor is any suffering forgotten.
We are only made stronger by its blows.
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