Silence of the Soleri is the action-packed sequel to the epic fantasy novel Lev Grossman calls "bloody and utterly epic."
Solus celebrates the Opening of the Mundus, a two-day holiday for the dead, but the city of the Soleri is hardly in need of diversion. A legion of traitors, led by a former captain of the Soleri military, rallies at the capital’s ancient walls. And inside those fortifications, trapped by circumstance, a second army fights for its very existence.
In a world inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear, this follow-up to Michael Johnston's Soleri, finds Solus besieged from within as well as without and the Hark-Wadi family is stuck at the heart of the conflict.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
Release date: February 16, 2021
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Print pages: 352
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Silence of the Soleri
Shot like an arrow, Rennon Hark-Wadi bolted from the darkness. He stumbled out of the Hollows and onto the streets of Solus. The flames were behind him, or so he thought. Ren had expected to see the sun when he left the underground passages of the city, but smoke filled the sky. It was everywhere, in the air and in his nose. The wide boulevards and sprawling plazas of the city were choked with it, and there were men and women charging in every direction. Something was amiss. There was panic in the streets, but Ren had other concerns. They were coming up the stairs at that very moment. “Are we all here?” he called to the others.
There were seven of them. Seven former ransoms of the empire. A few grunted in reply.
Twelve escaped the burnt ruins of the priory, their former home, their prison. Twelve.
Or was it more? He didn’t know. They’d stumbled through fire, met bandits, and soldiers too. I saved more lives than I lost, he thought, if only to reassure himself that he’d done some good—that all of this had in fact been worth it. Ren had gone looking for Tye Sirra, and he’d found her in the flaming ruins of the priory and led her and the others out of the Hollows and into the crowded boulevards of the empire’s capital.
“Ren,” said Tye, interrupting his thoughts as she came running up the stairs. “Give me your hand.”
He offered it, absently. He was still thinking about the priory, and the cell where he’d spent his youth.
“You’re squeezing my bones apart.” Tye shook loose his grip almost as quickly as she’d taken it.
Ren hadn’t noticed what his fingers were doing, but his hand felt empty when she pushed it away. His palm was checkered with soot and grease. Dried blood drew circles around the tips of his fingers. “I hadn’t meant—”
“To mash my fingers?”
“Something like that,” he said, too tired to think of any other reply, too out of breath to even form a sentence. “Seven,” he said. “We’ve got seven—is that the number?”
“How in Mithra’s name should I know?” Tye asked, frank as always. Even in their exhaustion, she hadn’t lost an ounce of her fire. Ren was glad to hear it, happy to have his friend back at his side.
They were the first ones out of the Hollows, but not the last.
Kollen Pisk emerged from the shadows. Like some beast born out of darkness, he staggered toward them, hair singed, skin caked in ash, clothes blackened with soot.
“Where in Horu’s eight hells am I?” Kollen asked. “I thought I’d left the fires.”
“There’s no leaving them,” said Tye, “so just get yourself out of the way.”
Adin Fahran was coming up behind Kollen and he looked to be in worse shape. His hands were burned, the skin black and blistering. He waved them in the air, trying in vain to soothe the hurt.
“C’mon, old friend. We’re almost there,” said Ren, glancing warily at the crowds, the city guard. Are they looking for us? he wondered. Do they even know we’re alive?
Lazlo Dank blundered into Ren and Adin, nearly toppling all three of them. Laz was lost, confused, and out of breath. The boy had no shirt. The flames had taken it from him. They’d stolen his hair as well. He was in shock, lost, too baffled to even speak. He was only a child after all. Laz had not yet reached his tenth year, or maybe even his ninth. Ren held Adin with one arm and Laz with the other. He cupped Tye’s shoulder as Carr Bergen lurched over the threshold. He carried Curst Falkirk, the youngest among them. Only six or seven, Curst had the look of death upon him, but when Carr set him down the young boy ran to Adin. They were both Ferens. Perhaps that was why Curst clung to Adin’s leg, huddling there, immovable, as if he’d holed himself up in some tower and planned on never leaving it.
“Seven,” said Ren. “That’s it. Seven.” They were the last survivors of the Priory of Tolemy.
An arrow whistled through the air and Ren’s attention was drawn once more to the crowds. “There’re soldiers,” said Ren. “We need to move.” There was good reason for them to get out of the soldiers’ path. The ransoms were the property of the empire. Only Ren and Adin were freemen. The rest were tributes. They were the emperor’s possessions and those soldiers might be coming for them. If captured, they would be punished, a foot cut off or maybe even a hand. Either way, they’d end up back in a cell, minus a limb or two.
“Go!” Ren cried, but his call was met only with confusion.
“Which way?” Tye asked.
“Away … from the flames,” Ren said, still a little shaken, not yet focused. “Oren said the blaze started in the Antechamber of the Ray, which is at the city’s core.”
“Away from the flames?” Kollen asked. “How”—he waved his hand in a circle—“do we know which way that is?”
“The smoke’s everywhere and the soldiers too,” said Carr, stating the obvious and taking a knock on the head from Kollen for doing it.
Curst remained at Adin’s side, Laz paced, pinching his nose to keep out the smoke. “I want to go home,” he chanted, but Ren didn’t know which home he meant. The priory was destroyed and the boy was a long way from his father’s keep in Rachis.
A man in black leather brushed past Ren.
The soldiers had arrived.
“So much for our escape,” said Kollen. “What now?”
Everyone looked to Ren. He was the one who’d fathered this endeavor. Although he had not claimed leadership, the ransoms looked to him for it. Their eyes begged. They pleaded for answers he didn’t have. He was not their leader, but he had led them. It was too late to shirk that duty. He had assumed some tacit responsibility for the group when he led them out of the priory. It was time to see things to their end and find a way out of this city.
A pair of fighting men bolted past them. Who’s at war? Ren studied the approaching soldiers. Who’s doing the chasing and who is the chased? He pulled Tye close to him, taking her out of one soldier’s path just as he sidestepped another. In the priory, he’d always been the one who protected Tye. He knew her secret. She was a young girl hidden among the priory boys. Protecting her was a hard habit to lose.
“I can take care of myself,” she said, pushing him away and nearly stumbling into another soldier. A fourth man appeared. This one wore pale-red armor and there were others at his side, all of them similarly clad.
“What is this?” asked Tye.
“Armies,” said Kollen. “We need to fly.”
“He’s right,” said Ren, “we should—”
A spear tore through Laz’s chest. The boy hit the cobblestones and his body split open like a crumpled gourd, ribs and viscera tangled about the wooden shaft. At the sight of it, at the sheer terror of what stood before them, Tye screwed her eyes shut. Curst buried his face in Adin’s belly, but Ren did not flinch. This is the price of my indecision.
There were six of them now.
Ren wondered if there would soon be five.
The soldiers had arrived, but this time he got a good look at them. Their armor was boiled and black and each chest piece bore the eld-horn symbol. He saw the burnt skin, the long hair, and grizzled beards.
“You’re Harkan.” Ren nearly choked on the words.
A flood of soldiers surrounded him.
“Harkan,” Ren said it again, louder this time.
“We’re not just Harkan,” said one man. “We’re the god’s damned kingsguard.”
The soldier leapt past Ren, pulled the spear from Laz’s chest, and launched it into the smoke. Laz’s whole body stiffened. Mercifully, those were his last movements.
“What are you doing?” Ren asked, but the soldier was already gone. The men in black were forming lines, lifting shields.
Why is the Harkan kingsguard in Solus? Did my father summon them before his death? That was the most likely answer. They’d come to aid one Hark-Wadi, but had instead found the other, the son instead of the father. They just didn’t know it yet. The men paid him no notice, but he knew these soldiers. They called themselves the black shields, the king’s chosen men. My men, thought Ren.
“These are Harkan soldiers,” he said, shaking Tye, tugging at Kollen’s sleeve. “They can help us.”
“Then make them,” said Tye, “before they cut us to pieces.”
“Or stomp us to death,” Kollen said as he dashed out of one soldier’s path and nearly ran into another.
Ren reached for the eld horn. Perhaps, if he held it up, the soldiers would recognize it. The horn was a symbol of the king of the Harkans, but he hadn’t carved it into a proper ceremonial blade. It looked like nothing more than a mud-slathered stick. Ren knew as much, so he unsheathed his father’s dagger. Every king wielded the sacred blade, and he wore the silver ring of his father. He hoped the soldiers would take notice, but the smoke made it difficult for Ren to see his own hand, let alone the ring that sat upon it.
“How do I get their attention?” Ren asked, eyes darting from Tye to Carr to Kollen and back.
No one answered, but they did act. Tye shouted in one man’s face. Carr tried it and the soldier jabbed him with an elbow, knocking the boy to his knees. The Harkans were engaged in some sort of retreat.
“In a moment they’ll be gone,” Tye cried, frantic.
“Some of you must know me!” Ren poured the last of his strength into his voice. “Were any of you in the Shambles or on the road to Harwen?” On that same road, Arko, the former king, named Ren the heir of Harkana and gave him the knife. A number of soldiers in the kingsguard saw him do it, so Ren raised the blade a bit higher. “Do any of you know the king’s iron? Do you recognize me?” He said it again, but no one stopped.
“For fuck’s sake, you fools,” cried Kollen, “don’t any of you know your king’s son?” Kollen planted his shoulder squarely in the center of a Harkan soldier’s chest plate. Ren followed suit, throwing himself at one of the men, forcing him to stop. Tye tried it out, but was knocked to the ground. Her head hit the stones, but her eyes were still open, lips curled into a blood-soaked grin.
“I’m the son of Arko,” Ren said.
The soldiers were at last forced to listen to him. The black shields had nothing else to do. Ren and the other ransoms had blocked half the street. In a moment, he guessed the soldiers would either lop off his head or raise him up on their shoulders—either seemed likely.
“Out of our way,” said the man who’d ripped the spear from Laz’s chest. His sword teetered a hair’s width from Ren’s chin.
Perhaps I will lose my head.
But Ren was defiant, he would not budge and neither would Kollen. Tye had gotten to her feet and was bustling about, taking the younger ransoms and making certain they weren’t lost among the soldiers.
“Look at his face,” Kollen shouted. “Some of you must know it!”
“I am the son of Arko,” Ren cried out. “I met him in the Shambles and on the road to Harwen!”
There were more men, swarming all around them and more soldiers in the distance, but none of them recognized him. Honestly, he feared only a handful could see his face. He pushed the sword aside and delved into the crowd, the dagger held high. “Does anyone know this blade? Was anyone there when I met the king?”
A scuffle emerged, one man pushing his way through the others, moving toward Ren at a furious pace. He ripped the dagger from Ren’s grip.
“Where did you get this?” he asked.
“My father, he—”
“He what? He gave you this?” the man asked, but he did not wait for an answer. “Does anyone know this boy?” he shouted in the stentorian tones of a captain. “Has anyone seen him? Were you there with our king?” Clearly the man had heard Ren’s words and was testing them.
There were a few shrugs. More than one man stood on his toes to get a better look at Ren, but there was smoke in the air and the views were all cut through with spearheads and the tips of shields. The men simply could not see him, not enough of him at least. Perhaps, given a moment, one of them might have recognized him, but time was in short supply.
“I know this blade,” said the man who’d taken the dagger from Ren, “but I don’t know you. None of my men know you. I’m Gneuss, the king’s second and the highest-ranking captain in the company. We’re the black shields, and you’re either the heir of Harkana or some damned thief.”
The captain had only one eye. A mound of scar tissue sheathed the other one, and he wore no patch to conceal the injury. Curious, Ren thought. This is a hard man. A bit of iron would not convince him that Ren was heir to the kingdom of Harkana. He opened his mouth to speak, but a pair of arrows fluttered past Gneuss’s helm, truncating their conversation. The captain shouted orders to the men, urging them to march. They formed ranks, but their escape was once more arrested.
“I’m Edric. You all know me.” A young man blocked the way. “I saw that boy in the Shambles. I kneeled to him. Yes, and I was there when the king slipped that dagger in his hand.” Edric was tall and his armor was torn. He was a bit thin for a fighting man, but he still had the look of a Harkan, his skin burnt like leather, teeth ground smooth, eyes glistening.
His words drew others.
“Are you certain?” Gneuss asked, his one eye looking askance. For him, this was all a distraction, a hiccup in his escape plan, or so Ren guessed. He could see the distrust in Gneuss’s eye, hear the irritation in his voice.
Edric took Ren by the chin, turning his head right and left, lifting it. “It’s the same damned boy. Floppy hair and big dumb eyes, built just like the father. He’s the one.”
Gneuss swallowed, clearly disappointed at the man’s conclusion. “Too bad.”
“Why?” Ren asked.
“Look,” said Gneuss.
Soldiers emerged from the smoke, thousands upon thousands of them. Men with tall shields brandished spears of improbable length. On rooftops, archers nocked arrows. Everywhere, men readied themselves for the attack.
Gneuss patted Ren’s shoulder. “See what I mean, son of Arko? You’ve found your men and now you’re going to die with them.”
The walls of the Soleri throne room were as thick as they were tall, impenetrable to attack, yet somehow vulnerable to the crack of iron breaking upon armor.
“What’s that?” Sarra Amunet asked. She’d spent the better part of an hour bandaging Ott’s wounds, making a splint for her son’s injured leg and wrapping his damaged hand with cloth torn from her dress. A broken spear would serve as his crutch.
“A battle,” Ott answered. “There’s no mistaking the sound.”
“There isn’t,” said Sarra, the disappointment clear in her voice. She’d thought the fight was done. After all, the Protector, Amen Saad, was dead, as were most of his generals. And Arko Hark-Wadi—the man who had been both the Ray of the Sun and her husband—was equally lifeless.
“Can you walk?” she asked.
She helped Ott to his feet, but he stumbled and nearly fell when he took his first step.
“I think not,” she said, “but I’ll take you with me anyway. There’re only ghosts here and I can’t stand the idea of leaving you alone with them.” Admittedly, the dead did outnumber the living in the throne room of the Soleri. The corpses of a dozen priests littered the floor, the blood still fresh, the eyes open. The Protector’s body had not yet gone cold. The whole room stunk of blood and the dank odor of perspiration, and just to make things worse, Suten Anu’s remains were gray and bloated and stinking wildly of decay. The throne was burned, as were many of the furnishings. Soot covered everything and the wind howled through the chamber like some phantom determined to give life to a place that was utterly devoid of it.
Only the dust stirred. Gray motes spiraled about their sandals as the pair made their way toward a slender door Sarra had spied while she was bandaging Ott’s leg. This was not the ceremonial entryway of the throne room, the gate through which Amen Saad had come with Sarra to see the emperor and instead found his death. No, this was a smaller door, unexceptional save for the dim slivers of light that limned its edges. That pale glow could mean only one thing: This door led to the sun. In all likelihood, it would take them to gardens of the Empyreal Domain. Sarra had no interest in taking the long way out of the throne room. That one led through the ritual corridor and the Hall of Histories. She’d lose an hour or more if she followed that passage, but there was no need to retrace the sacred way. Sarra hit the small door and it gave way. She had no idea where she was going, not really. She hoped to see the sun, but clouds blocked it. Smoke rose in the distance, and shouts bounded over the Shroud Wall.
“The battle must be close,” she said. “But who’s fighting it? What battle rages in my city?”
Ott gave no reply.
The two of them walked, Sarra half carrying him as they stumbled onto a well-trimmed sward. Soft grass caressed her feet, tickling at her toes as it gathered around the tongs of her sandals. She stopped. There was no grass in Sola—none that lived.
Abruptly, Sarra noticed that she was not alone. Around her, the humble servants of the Kiltet went about their work. With slender blades, they nipped at each piece of grass, shaped each flower petal. They did not look up. Not one of them attempted to meet Sarra’s gaze. She’d come from the domain of the gods, which meant they were her servants. The men and women of the Kiltet went back to their garden work and Sarra stopped to take note of what surrounded them.
Beauty accosted her from every direction. Sinuous paths meandered into shadowy grottos. Statues of gold and silver poked unexpectedly from leafy vales. There were wonders here. She glimpsed the faint outlines of what she guessed were the Shadow Gardens. The sun itself drew this maze of changing paths. It gave her pause. Sarra was moving slowly, taking it all in. Up ahead, there were strange fountains where figures emerged from the water, their bronze limbs animated by some unseen mechanism, arms and legs lifting and falling in elaborately choreographed motions. She’d read of this place on countless occasions. Somewhere, there was said to be a grotto where the statues were made of light and nothing more, their forms materializing out of the reflections of the grotto’s polished walls. The beauty of these gardens could tease the eyes for eternity. This was the domain of the Soleri.
If only I had time to look at it.
War had come to the city of the gods.
Amen Saad’s bloody handprint still clung to her robe, and the boy’s last breath had barely escaped his lips. She’d thought the fight was over when she defeated the Protector and claimed the mantle of the First Ray, but unrest echoed in the city. War rattled the city streets and Sarra needed to see it, so she hurried through the gardens, heedless of what she crushed or bent. Her sandals mashed clusters of autumn sage, and she trampled the delicate nibs of blue flax and red hyssop. She paid them little or no notice. Sarra had nearly lost her life that morning. She’d risked everything to put Amen Saad to rest and the city to heel. Her work was done.
So why is there turmoil in Solus?
She stumbled onto a pebbled trail, scattering stones as she hurried sidelong across the curving path. Up ahead, smoke gathered at the rim of the Shroud Wall.
The blaze was Amen’s doing. He’d sealed the doors of the Antechamber and set fire to the former Ray of the Sun, putting Arko Hark-Wadi to the old test, Mithra’s Flame. Unfortunately, Amen Saad had lit a torch he could not snuff. The fires consumed half the Waset, and the smoke from the blaze still lingered at the wall, hanging there like some great cloud trapped upon a mountain’s summit.
“Is it the fires?” asked Ott. “Maybe they’ve caused the commotion?”
Sarra wrinkled her lip. “No, this isn’t about Arko or the fire that followed his death. I doubt a single tear was shed for the man.” Sarra had wanted to shed one and perhaps she had, but she doubted any citizen of Solus had done the same. “No,” she said. “This is no protest. The people wanted him dead; they cheered at the flames.”
Sarra stumbled backward when the smoke came tumbling over the wall like some great gray waterfall.
“I see a stair,” said Ott. He motioned to it with his good arm, his broken finger raised to indicate a spiraling set of stones.
Sarra choked down an apology when she saw him tremble, when he screwed his eyes shut in pain. She wanted to explain why she had not been able to beg for Ott’s release when he was a captive of the former Protector, but the words died on her lips. She’d played a delicate game and won, but her son had been caught somewhere in the middle of it all. The fingers on his right hand were broken, jumbled together like sticks tossed haphazardly in a pile.
“Stay here,” she said. “You can’t climb and I need to have a look at the city.”
Ott shook his head, his teeth clenched in pain. “You’re not leaving me, Mother.”
Sarra didn’t bother to argue. He was her son; he shared her curiosity.
They scaled the winding stair, and when Sarra reached the first wall walk she braced Ott against the stones with as much care as was possible.
“Are you all right?” she asked, fearful of the answer.
“You are anything but fine, but I need to get a look at the city. Give me a moment,” she said, pacing, looking for a window. “Where’re the arrow loops?” she murmured. “There must be some hole in this wall.”
As Sarra circled the wall walk, Ott fell to his ass with an uneasy thump.
“I don’t think I can stay here for very long,” he said. The smoke had covered a good portion of the wall and was starting to settle on the path.
“Where are the windows?” she asked, circling the walkway, her eyes at last alighting upon a square of amber no larger than her head. Sarra pushed her fist through it and the panel flew from its moorings, opening up a window onto the city.
Outside, in the streets, two armies clashed. One was small but still formidable, their armor black. She knew them well enough, but the second she did not recognize, not fully. She’d seen them in the past, in a parade of one sort or another. They were clad in bronze mail, but much of it was painted red. It was a pale color, a shade the military houses often favored.
“Tell me what you see,” said Ott as he tore a bit of cloth from his robe and covered his mouth.
She described the soldiers and their livery.
“The red armor,” Ott said, “tell me about it.”
“It’s madder or carmine, and there’s a symbol on the shields, a serpent coiled into a labyrinth of some sort.”
Ott was uncharacteristically quiet, the gray smoke gathering about him.
“What is it?” she asked. “What do you know?”
“I can’t be certain, but I saw that symbol once before, on some guards.”
“Dressed in red?”
“All of them.”
Ott heaved a bitter sigh, eyes fixed on his broken hand. “I saw them in the tower of the Protector, the great Citadel of Solus,” he said, his tone full of mockery. “In that damned cell where they held me.”
“I thought as much,” Sarra said. Then she too was quiet. Once more, Sarra was sorry she’d allowed her foes to take and torture him, sorry her plans had overshadowed the needs of her son. “I…” Sarra came up short for the second time. “Who were these men, did they say their names?”
“No names. There was one who came frequently, an elderly man … I think. He wore a veil. I could not see his face, but he questioned me often enough. He asked about you and about my true father. He knew I was Arko’s son. He asked how I was kept hidden all these years. He wanted to know everything. I’m sorry…” Ott stuttered a bit, his broken fingers twitching. “My secret is revealed.”
Sarra knew as much. Amen Saad had already boasted of the discovery. The house of Saad knew that Ott was the trueborn son of Sarra and Arko, the heir to Harkana’s throne. Arko’s bastard, Ren, had gone to the priory in Ott’s place without even knowing that he was not the king’s legitimate son. To this day, he was ignorant of the truth, or so she guessed.
“These were not Amen’s men?” she asked.
“No,” said Ott, “but they were acquaintances. The elderly man was in command of the soldiers. In fact, it seemed as if he were in charge of Amen, as if he were the one controlling the whole thing.”
At that, Sarra’s head jerked around. She’d thought that Amen Saad had acted alone, that his ambitions belonged to no one else, that he alone had been her foe.
I was wrong.
Amen Saad had a master. This veiled man. Sarra had already guessed at his identity, but she needed to be certain of it.
“I must go into the city, Ott. I have to know what is happening in those streets. The Protector’s Army is stationed well outside of Solus; this is not their fight. These men in red belong to a private army and they’ve taken it upon themselves to wage a war within my city, usurping my power as well as my position.” She needed to take charge of the situation. She was the First Ray of the Sun, the mouth of the god. She was the voice of an emperor that did not even exist, which meant that she was in fact the emperor and this was in fact her city.
The smoke engulfed the walk as Sarra lifted Ott to his feet. They blundered down the winding stair. “I must go,” she said as they stumbled past the stair and back through the gardens. “I’ll exit through the ceremonial arch. I am Ray and I must announce myself to the city.”
“And me?” Ott asked.
“Stay here until we can find a way to disguise you. The House of Saad took you from me once. I won’t let it happen again. We must be cautious, circumspect in every fashion,” she said, though she knew that was not the whole truth. Stay here, she thought, so I know you are out of harm’s way. Sarra did not want to worry over Ott. She wanted to file him away somewhere safe where no one could reach him.
“There are things you can do in the archives of the Soleri,” she continued. “We still don’t know the whole truth about how we found those statues in the Shambles. That boy—the young priest, Nollin—led us there. I’m certain of it. He had some agenda, and it had something to do with the twelve. In the archives of the Soleri, there must be some account of the children of Mithra-Sol, the sons of Re and Pyras. Learn what you can. Stay here, Ott. Worry over these matters.”
She gave him no chance to respond. Sarra simply plowed through the fields of delicate blossoms, trying to wipe Amen Saad’s blood from her robe. It would look terribly suspicious were she to emerge from the domain with a bloody handprint on her sleeve. She hid it as best she could, but some hint of the mark remained and it made her recall the boy’s last moments. When she’d stood above Amen and told him she was emperor, she’d thought that was the end of it. Sarra had won, but the fighting in the streets told a new and different story.
Her struggles had just begun.
Copyright © 2021 by Michael Johnston
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