The Bloody Throne
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"Intricate, elegant and sharp as a blade―sweeping political fantasy at its finest." ―Tasha Suri, author of The Jasmine Throne
A sweeping epic of war, glory, and survival, The Bloody Throne is the masterful conclusion to Hostage of Empire, a medieval East Asia-inspired fantasy trilogy.
The great Zhaon empire is in turmoil. The emperor is dead, and the crown prince has fallen to hidden schemes, leaving his most dangerous prince to assume the throne. The imperial court is seething, and whispers of war grow to shouts. The once vanquished kingdom of Khir marches again to regain their honor, the savage Tabrak raid the borders after ravaging the South, and assassins lurk in the shadows seeking imperial favor.
Komor Yala, her own position uncertain, finds shelter in marriage to the cunning Third Prince. But there is little safety in Zhaon. Death and destruction mount as a blood-drenched summer ends, and to the victor will be left an empire—if it is not turned to smoking ruins first.
The wheel of destiny is turning, and all will be caught under its weight...
Praise for the Hostage of Empire series:
"With a deliberate pace and fine attention to details of dress and custom, Emmett weaves a masterful tale of court intrigues." ―Booklist (starred review)
"Emmett’s worldbuilding is sophisticated and captivating." ―Publishers Weekly
"Action and intrigue takes place within a layered and beautifully realized fantasy world."―B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog
Hostage of Empire
The Throne of the Five Winds
The Poison Prince
The Bloody Throne
Release date: March 29, 2022
Print pages: 480
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The Bloody Throne
North of Zhaon-An’s smoky, bustling hive, the bright white stone of new imperial tombs glittered. The most recently filled shrines saw a steady stream of visitors from peasant to noble. Or at least, one of them did, for Garan Tamuron had held the blessing of Heaven and unified Zhaon.
His eldest son and heir’s urn was also interred during the same ceremony three tendays ago, but few found it advisable to halt before Garan Takyeo’s deep-carved name and the dates of his brief reign—less than a moon-cycle, hardly worth celebrating. After all, there was a new Emperor; the warlord of Garan had left his land well provided for in that respect.
It was considered unwise, as well as impolitic, to linger before the new Emperor’s brotherly predecessor. After all, even the strictest filial mourning was done.
Still fewer visitors paused before Garan Takyeo’s wife, the Khir princess resting so far from her ancestors. Yet her shade had the most faithful caller, for every day a slight noblewoman, at first in deep pale mourning but afterward with a single unbleached armband denoting an unwillingness to turn her grief loose, paused before Garan Tamuron’s tomb to offer respects, paused for a longer while before Garan Takyeo’s, and lingered long before the stone wall holding the urn of Ashan Mahara.
It was there, bareheaded under the glare, that Komor Yala bowed thrice with her hands together and settled to pray.
The man accompanying her, broad-shouldered in the black tunic Shan noblemen preferred, gave only the token offerings at the old Emperor’s tomb, spent twice the time before the eldest son’s, and bowed thrice with impeccable politeness before the grave-shrine of the Khir princess before retreating to the shade of a fringeleaf tree near the wall. His gaze, dark and hungry, rested upon Komor Yala, and after a short while he spoke a curt word to send the kaburei to hold a cup-shaped shelter of taut-stretched, oiled cloth over her lady. The sunbell was crimson, that shade of luck and wealth, a bright blood-clot against white stone.
Such an infringement upon her prayers did not discommode the noblewoman. In fact, she hardly seemed to notice it, and endured the sunbell’s tiny, wobbling shade.
The nobleman—for such the quality of his cloth proclaimed him to be—waited with no sign of impatience, leaning against the fringeleaf’s bole with his arms crossed. A glint of greenstone upon his left first finger denoted not just nobility but princely status, and only one son of Garan Tamuron would wear a Shan lord’s somber costume with a hurai. Another glitter was a gold hoop in his left ear, a barbaric accoutrement most required to address him knew better than to mention. A leather-wrapped swordhilt protruded over his right shoulder, and his scarred face bore its usual sardonic expression, closed and distant. A faint sheen showed on his forehead, not quite sweat—for he was born to Zhaon’s heat, and had endured Shan’s as well for many a summer.
Finally, Komor Yala bowed thrice, her lips moving slightly, and retreated the prescribed number of steps from the august presence of her princess’s shade without turning. The small broom she used to sweep the dimensions of a Khir pailai clean before lighting the incense to feed a shade’s slight hunger was set neatly aside, and she turned to find Garan Takshin, Third Prince of Zhaon—for even if his now-eldest brother formally reordered the succession, Takshin was absent from its list and his title therefore static—regarding her as he often did, a line between his eyebrows and his mouth set as if puzzled by her mere existence.
Yala accepted the sunbell’s stem from Anh. The heat was massive, a living thing; the wet oven of spring was bad enough, but this dust and the dry air threatening to steal the breath and turn the skin to a crack-glaze upon pottery were different only in kind, not degree. The afternoon storms of the summer rain-season had receded, occasional dry lightning crackling over distant mountains providing no relief.
The kaburei hurried ahead to the horses, visibly longing for relative coolness inside the thick walls and high ceilings of the palace compound. Yala, hobbled by decorum, laid the fingers of her free hand in the crook of Takshin’s proffered elbow, and included him in the sunbell’s shade as well as she could.
Such graciousness did not last, for he made a short, irritated sound and glanced sideways. “I will not wilt, little lure. Keep it for yourself.” His scarred lip did not twist, though, and the words were sharp but not unkind.
“The sun hammers everything in Zhaon flat,” she murmured.
A shadow approached from the opposite direction, drifting along the wide paved avenue with a deceptively lazy stride. His dun merchant’s robe was of very fine quality and his boots even finer, though his topknot was caged merely in leather with a highly carved pin of fragrant ceduan. A flash of his glance showed pale grey like Yala’s own, marking him as a Khir of a certain status.
The Zhaon held that a dark eye was a trustworthy one. In the North, the proverb was somewhat different.
Takshin slowed, which meant Yala must. Her gaze met the merchant’s; she tilted her sunbell slightly. Do not, please.
Would he recognize the message? He either did not, or chose not to, for he swept them a deep, very formal bow. “My lord Third Prince, my lady Komor.” His Zhaon was spiked with Khir’s harsh consonants, but handled adroitly enough.
It would have been entirely Takshin’s right to refuse notice, but he halted instead, and for once his tone was not overly cold. “Honorable Narikhi, is it? You are most unexpected.”
“Hopefully not unwelcome, my lord prince.” The Khir straightened, and he did not try to catch Yala’s gaze. In any case, she did her best to appear utterly absorbed in the constitution of the paving-stones. Her cheeks were pale under their copper, but that could have been the heat.
“Not at all. I had little chance to thank you for your service to my Eldest Brother.” A stray breath—far too languorous to be called a breeze—ruffled Takshin’s topknot, caged in carved bone with an antique, dull silver pin. “I would have thought you eager to leave Zhaon-An.” Many traders were milling about in frightened fashion, since northern Khir had closed their borders and word of a certain disaster befalling Zhaon’s southron neighbor had begun to spread despite the Palace’s best attempts to keep a lid upon the rai-pot.
“Ah, a man must stay where he is needed, or where he may make a living.” The merchant’s smile widened a trifle. A much brighter sheen of sweat clung to his brow; he was, after all, a northern creature. The summers of dagger-shaped Khir were torrid enough, but not to compare to Zhaon’s. And their winters gave rise to the proverb cold as a northerner. “I have come today to make a few poor offerings.”
“Half of the city has, of late. The other half are probably not far behind.” Takshin regarded him levelly; many had quailed under the Third Prince’s gaze. “You saved his life; do you come to propitiate his shade? Or to pray for the Crown Princess?”
If it was an insult to use Mahara’s Zhaon title, it was a polite one, for naming the dead was unlucky and ill-mannered at once. The merchant Narikhi acknowledged as much with a gesture, spreading his hands, but his weight did not shift. He stood, indeed, in the manner of one who had more than a little martial training of the sort a mere merchant could not afford.
He was an enigma, then—but minor Khir lordlings were sometimes evicted from a family if there was not patrimony enough to feed them, and some few took to other occupations. This fellow could even be a byblow gotten upon a peasant girl in a moment of drunkenness or concupiscence, though his eyes spoke against such an estimation.
Yala’s throat was dry, and not just from Zhaon’s endless dust. It was a wonder the peasants had any soil to till, with so much of it hanging in the stale air. Her underlinen was uncomfortably damp; even sweating brought no relief.
“Both,” the merchant replied. “Unless it is unwelcome. It seems to me Lady Komor is the only mourner for the Crown Princess.”
Yala quelled another restless movement. Why was he doing this? She racked her brain and liver both for some polite way to send the Third Prince ahead, leaving her free to hiss a warning or, even better, utter a phrase of such manifest logic and soft power it would carry this man back to Khir.
It was far too dangerous for him here. She would never have thought Ashani Daoyan capable of this recklessness. If anyone discovered his true identity, he might well be closed in fetters and held in the Palace dungeons.
Having visited that place once, however briefly, she had no desire to return or to see her brother’s childhood friend sent there.
Garan Takshin simply nodded, with the mannerly brusqueness of a nobleman speaking to another who had fallen upon hard times. “It speaks well of you, honorable sir. Please do not let us keep you, and should you need future aid, remember my name.”
“How could I ever forget it?” The merchant bowed again, including Yala in the motion with easy grace. “I remain your humble servant, my lord prince, and the lady’s as well.” Mischief glittered in his pale gaze.
At least he was not wearing a pale mourning armband; that would have been entirely too much. Yala, numbly expecting disaster at any moment, suppressed the urge to bow in return. Takshin set off again, which meant she must glide at his side, her grey gaze properly lowered. There was no chance to address a mere merchant even if etiquette would have permitted, and in any case she was not entirely certain her voice would remain steady.
Did Daoyan watch her walk away under a sunbell’s trembling shade? Takshin evidently thought her almost prostrate with the heat, for he moved at a much slower stride than usual, and when he glanced at her bowed head she was occupied in watching the paving again, thinking furiously.
“An interesting fellow,” Takshin said, softly, and Yala made a soft, noncommittal noise.
There was no way he could guess. At least, she hoped not. Why had Dao not left as she begged him to? And coming to the tombs—was he mad, or simply stubborn?
By the time they reached the horses, her sorely tested equilibrium had returned. At least riding would create a breeze, even if they had to stay at a sedate pace for Anh to lead her mistress’s palfrey. Takshin said nothing else beyond mere commonplaces, but she could not be certain.
The Third Prince, like Yala herself, did not speak of all he knew.
Still, who would credit the heir to the Great Rider of Khir masquerading as a merchant in the chief city of his land’s greatest traditional enemy? Perhaps Ashani Daoyan only wished to visit his half-sister’s tomb before he left.
Yet Yala did not believe it. It wasn’t like Dao to admit defeat in anything, even when it would be better to retreat in order to strike twice as hard later, like the yue slicing clean air to gather strength.
The Third Prince swung into his saddle, and Yala let him lead the way. It was a relief to be out of his gaze save for the danger of an inadvisable word or gesture if relaxation made her unwary. The worries crowding her did not wait patiently while she visited the dead. No, they whispered in her ears, filled her head-meat, pressed behind her heart, and all but turned her liver pale.
She was to be married soon, for the filial mourning due Garan Tamuron was done. And her future husband, the Third Prince of Zhaon, was altogether too intelligent—not to mention watchful—to evade if he decided to seriously question her upon the matter of a Khir merchant who was not acting at all as if he knew his station.
Yala wished she could gather her reins, but it was Anh’s duty to lead her horse. Instead, she tried to look only wilting from heat instead of furiously untangling several mental threads at once. Her head was a jumbled sewing-basket, but one thing was clear.
It did not look as if Dao would accede to her plans or pleading with any grace. A sharp pressure behind Yala’s eyes was not quite tears, but an onlooker would be forgiven for thinking her well advised to shed a few. Women were held to be made of water and cooler humors, anyway. She had to send Ashani Daoyan—using Narikh, his mother’s clan-name, of all things, did he have no sense at all?—from Zhaon-An as soon as possible.
She watched her husband-to-be’s broad back as he rode to clear the way for a lady, her veil turning the world to a hot, dust-laden blur, and tried to think of how.
The vermilion pillars of Zhaon’s great throne-hall were a regimented forest, an army standing ready for a general’s command. In winter great braziers would be lit to provide warmth; in the dry time of summer coils of healthful incense burned in conical holders placed at strictly regulated intervals, and palace servants in goldenrod cloth sallied through with quick apologetic footsteps to sweep any outside dust away through the great double doors. The massive stone floor with its deep bedrock roots was of unvarying temperature despite the weather, and a slight draft breathed from other chambers and hallways feeding into this giant space.
Nevertheless, even those born in this clime dabbed at their foreheads with linen squares, or swallowed near-boiling tea brought by yet more hurrying servants, to force the body to cool itself.
At the far end, the low carmine-upholstered bench meant to hold the nerve-heart and liver of Zhaon was vacant, for the Emperor had risen and advanced from the dais to meet his visitors. The eunuchs and scribes busily brushing edicts and policy updates for dispersal to the rest of the country’s lords, scholars, magistrates, and other worthies made a series of quick movements, those on the benches closest to the august presence half-rising and bowing, the ministers—much closer to the throne, and therefore much more visible—bowing deeply, no few of them tucking fans into their sleeves to accomplish the movement with the requisite grace.
The new Emperor’s visitors were, after all, royal personages in their own right. The former First Concubine Garan Daebo-a Luswone and her son Sixth Prince Garan Jin approached with all due and prescribed care. The First Concubine would have bowed low to Garan Kurin, once Second Prince and now Emperor of Zhaon, but he hurried forward, his scarlet and gold robe making a low sweet sound.
“Now, now,” he said, quietly but firmly. The unbleached mourning-band upon his right arm bore three knots, a pale slash against crimson silk. “My gracious Third Mother, none of that.”
Perhaps a ministerial ear tingled to hear such kindness in the Emperor’s tone, and rapid calculations of relative power and influence were redone. It was still early in a new reign for true power or preference to show itself, but even the smallest trickle of pebbles might herald a stonefall, as those in the northern borderlands often muttered.
Luswone, her hair dressed in the high asymmetrical fashion of Daebo, sought to bow again. There was a trace of redness around her fine, lustrous dark eyes, and her lips did not hold the pale peach shine-paste she customarily wore. Her own dress was still full pale mourning, and there was no silverwork sheath over the smallest nail of her left hand. Fine lines had appeared at the corners of her eyes and mouth, where before there had been only rigid, pampered control.
The Emperor caught her wrists, keeping the woman from her second ceremonial obeisance. “Please,” he said, courteously enough. “Walk with me, Third Mother. We shall speak.”
“I do not know what to speak of,” she replied, somewhat numbly. Her son, performing the bow due his now-eldest brother and sovereign, was unwonted pale and quite uncharacteristically silent. Garan Jin seemed to have aged as his mother did these past few weeks.
Of course, he was the only child remaining to her, his mother’s prop in old age, and the lowest prince in succession. Still, he straightened, regarding Kurin with bloodshot eyes and a mouth drawn tight. His only pale accoutrement was an armband as well, though gossip said he had to be argued out of full mourning. He had ever been the more tranquil of Luswone’s children, but what brother could be merry when his sister’s head had been sent home without the rest of her?
And what mother, losing both her husband and her daughter in such short succession, could be forced out of unbleached cloth? Sympathy for the First Concubine was high at the moment. Even her new title—Third Mother to the Revered Emperor, a high rank indeed—would obviously bring little comfort. The Sixth Prince took his mother’s elbow, providing more support, and did not quite look at his brother.
“You came to ask for something,” Kurin prompted. The ministers exchanged glances at how filial he sounded; his uncle Binei Jinwon, Lord Yulehi and chief minister during the interregnum since it was his half of the year, did not smile fondly but instead watched with great attention. “I think I know what, too.”
“It is small enough.” Luswone’s words halted; when she continued, she used the inflection of a dowager addressing a ruling Emperor, not a junior mother addressing a prince. “A small enough thing.”
“Yes.” The Emperor nodded, and he did not look to his ministers for agreement or direction. The funeral for the Queen of Shan—her reign had been as short as her eldest brother’s, and just as dramatic—had left nothing to be desired in costliness or taste, despite whispers calling it somewhat inauspicious to have a whole cleansing pyre for what was, after all, merely a head. A life-size, jointed wooden frame had taken the place of the princess’s bones, padding in the shape of a body wrapped solicitously in linen and then a robe of unbleached silk under a ceremonial crimson gown. “I have decided, Third Mother.”
The flour-skinned barbarian who had carried First Princess Sabwone’s head step by jolting step from Shan’s burning capital was still in the dungeons, still awaiting the new Emperor’s pleasure after three double hands of days. It was whispered that Zan Fein the head court eunuch had not put certain questions to the envoy from the Pale Horde; indeed, those who spoke of such things inevitably added the observation that refined techniques of information-gathering were surely wasted upon one of the Tabrak.
Besides, the Emperor was busy solidifying his rule, and it did not take great imagination or premonition to understand the Horde would be riding into Zhaon soon, if they had not already slept off the meal made by the sacking of Shan’s capital.
“Decided?” Luswone blinked, as if reaching the great hall had taken all her strength and she was somewhat surprised to find a son here instead of Garan Tamuron. “Is that so?”
“Sabwone’s urn will be placed in the new tombs near Father.” Kurin’s tone was low, confidential. The ministers, straining to hear, had to guess his decision from Sixth Prince Jin’s sudden startled look, but very few had thought it likely the Emperor would deny such a thing. “Have no fear, Third Mother. It will be done.”
Luswone swayed. Her son held her arm, but his chin rose, like a young stag scenting fire. And he finally spoke. “Eldest…” The wad of pounded rai in his throat bobbed. “Eldest Brother, we are grateful.”
“She was my sister too, Jin.” Kurin’s mouth hardened, its beneficent smile turning masklike. “We are only waiting for the carvers. She will rest next to Father, and I will personally make the first offering.”
The younger prince did not protest, though it was his duty and obligation to make said offering. He did glance past his imperial brother’s shoulder at the knot of ministers in their court robes, watching avidly. Perhaps he was weighing the likelihood of protest from that quarter, but Kurin affected not to notice.
“Very…” Luswone paused. Her throat worked too, and her eyes welled. “Very kind of you, Secon—Your Majesty.”
“Kurin, Third Mother. Before his mother, even the Emperor is only a son.” It was a pretty aphorism, and a high honor. Luswone, her objective achieved, attempted to bow again with a stifled sob, but the Emperor caught her arms and prevented the maneuver. “No more of that. Jin, return Third Mother to the Iejo. I shall send a physician; so much grief is not good for her.”
“I am well enough,” Luswone managed, and would have swayed again like an overburdened reed if not for their combined steadying.
“Come, Mother.” Jin’s voice had broken and was a man’s huskiness instead of a boy’s piping. “Lean on me. That’s it.”
The fetching scene—two sons and a grief-stricken mother—was worthy of a wall-hanging. The Third Mother and her remaining child did not halt to make their prescribed bows when leaving the Emperor’s presence, but a mutter of gossip did not follow them after such an oversight.
All in all, the new Emperor was proving himself most solicitous of his grieving family. It struck at the heart of rumors that he had not always been so restrained. Or so clement.
“Your Majesty…” Binei Jinwon approached, his step very soft under dark, swaying ministerial robes. His mourning armband was unknotted, but no minister would dare to lay aside such an appurtenance while his ruler still wore one. “Is it wise to—” The sentence died in his throat as his nephew rounded upon him, pale under his copper and with his sleepy eyes glittering dangerously.
Some few among the remaining ministers were no doubt secretly pleased to see a son of Garan Tamuron halt Lord Yulehi in his tracks. Others reserved judgment, knowing the temper of the Emperor’s birth-mother, now elevated to the status of first dowager queen. Binei Jinwon owed his position to that woman, and gossip painted her mad with grief for the loss of Garan Tamuron.
Or for some other, less traditionally wifely reason.
“Garan Daebo-a Sabwone’s urn will be immured next to my father’s, Lord Yulehi.” The Emperor’s tone was cold as he glided for the dais, effectively closing discussion. “Now, continue. The question of taxation in certain provinces.”
The ministers hurried to approach the throne, one or two with a senior scribe in tow to make notes upon a small chest-desk held by a leather strap passed behind the nape, their slippered steps peculiarly soft in order to avoid splashing ink. Kurin mounted the steps, settled decisively upon the carmine bench, and beckoned Hailung Jedao, Lord Hanweo, closer.
It was not Lord Hanweo’s half of the year for primacy, but he stepped forth anyway—the Emperor’s summons could not be denied—and for the rest of morning court Binei Jinwon was all but ignored. A slight, angry flush mounted upon Lord Yulehi’s throat, but he was forced to linger among those not called.
Filial in one direction, perhaps the Emperor was forced to be severe in another. The string-beads upon which power counted had fallen into a different configuration, and to some, it was high time.
Zhaon’s Northern Army was now a mere skeleton, but a well-trained one. Should it become necessary, the ranks would be thrown open again, swelling around the hard core of cadres into a mighty many-legged animal ready to march. Veterans released with a scrip for a certain minimum amount of arable land would be given a promotion should they return in the time of Zhaon’s need, and be rewarded with yet more afterward—if they survived.
For now, the army was quiescent, its southron twin likewise emaciated and under the control of a trusted deputy. Even in slumber, head-meat and liver were necessary to a body, and for both armies those organs resided in the man beloved of the God of War, Garan Tamuron’s soldier-son Zakkar Kai.
The soldiers were glad to have their father returned from the capital, and cheered him as he rode between their drawn-up ranks, shouts rising from dry throats under heavy golden sunshine. A double-ration of sohju was ordered, and if their general’s face was forbidding under his horned parade helm, it was no more so than usual and expected. The ceremony of greeting was attended with all due solemnity, and ceremonial mourning for the Emperor—whether Garan Tamuron or his eldest son’s short reign, who could tell—was announced finished. All the accessories of military grief were to be retired, and it was perhaps a measure of General Zakkar’s grasp upon his men that no rumor of rebellion against a new regime, no matter how fleeting, had raced between the tents or fluttered across the drill grounds.
The line between obedient general and restive warlord was thin indeed; if any of Zakkar’s junior generals or square leaders thought perhaps their master should sit upon the Throne of Five Winds, they were wise enough to keep it to themselves. The ancient keep of Tienzu echoed with their cheers, and its stone stairs, worn near the middle by near-constant foot traffic since the First Dynasty, rang with hurrying boots.
His broad-shouldered, moon-faced steward-adjutant Anlon met Kai at the door to the general’s private quarters wearing a quite unwonted frown. News from Zhaon-An during the past few tendays had been spotty at best and Kai’s departure hurried indeed, not to mention quite dramatic. Visibly relieved to have his master returned whole from what he considered a den of venomous things, the steward was still uneasy, as befitted his station.
Those discharging his duties were often called mother hens, levity found in their fussing married to a quite reasonable desire never to provoke the flapping fury of such a creature.
“My lord.” Anlon bowed, relief and fresh worry creasing his brow. “Have you eaten? There is soldier-tea, and cakes. Come, let me take that.”
In short order Kai was divested of helm and gauntlets, but he kept his dragon-hilted sword to hand. “’Tis good to see you too, Anlon. Have there been dispatches?” An army fought with weapons and marched upon its stomach, but the paper—pressed-rai or pounded rag—was how it thought, and how its pain was relayed upon nerve-paths to the head-meat.
“Near daily since your departure. I organized the papers in order of importance. Hurong Baihan is touring the northern bridges, and Sehon Doah—”
“Not now.” Kai shook his head, lifting his arms so Anlon could unlace and pull stiffened leather shoulder-cups free. He would deal with dispatches later; it was enough to know they had arrived and there were no more stoppages in the flow of the army’s rai-paper humors.
Since, of course, Kurin had won after all. Disgust he could not afford to show curdled in Kai’s belly. At the moment, all he wanted was a bath and enough sohju to blind a man. He would only get the former; there was too much work to sink into his cups.
It was an unexpected mercy and a deadly grievance at once. “Letters?” The inquiry was sharp, the word cut short and crisp.
Anlon shook his greying head. “No, my lord.” He did not add Who in Zhaon-An would write to you now? After all, Kanbina was gone, smoke from a pyre and free at last. And Yala…
Kai could not think upon her impending marriage.
Yet he thought of little else, attending to his duties with only half his head-meat and feeling a deadly burn of impatience behind his heart and liver both. “There will be a painting of my adoptive-mother from Zhaon-An, soon. There is a memorial tablet in my luggage; see that it is set in the shrine.” He would offer to Kanbina daily, just as he did to the shades of his unremembered parents. Now all three were ash upon so many scorching winds.
“Yes, my lord.” Anlon paused. “There are many gifts. From the men.”
It was meant as a kindness, but all Kai felt was the burden of another duty upon his already sore shoulders. Anlon bent to the work of peeling away leather half-armor in earnest, and Kai brought himself back to the present with a jolt.
“Forgive me, old friend. I am of an ill temper today.” It was something Yala, with her solicitousness, might have murmured to ease another’s feelings. Kai denied the urge to squeeze his eyes shut, painting her face upon the inside of the lids. I would go with you, she had said. “How is your wound?”
“Nothing of it remains to speak of.” Anlon grunted as he bent to separate the thigh-segments; he was lucky the assassin’s knife had not punctured a bowel-channel. A lucky old soldier was, in many cases, better than an energetic young one. “You’ve lost weight. This isn’t good.” He clucked like a maiden auntie, solicitous of his general’s health.
“At least I have it to lose.” Along with everything else. Kai could not afford to wonder whether Heaven might have taken Anlon and spared Garan Takyeo from gut-rot had it suited their purposes better. Would he have traded one for the other, if given the chance? “I long for a bath hot enough to turn me into soup. How stands the army for provisions?”
“Summertime. Two large detachments at the first rai harvest, others helping with clearing. There was some grumbling, but not much.” Anlon paused, knowing his master’s moods well enough to risk a question or two of his own. “What of Zhaon-An
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