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Shattered Pillars
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Shattered Pillars

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Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor, 2013
Series: The Eternal Sky: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Heroic Fantasy
Magical Realism
Demons
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Synopsis

The Shattered Pillars is the second book of Bear’s The Eternal Sky trilogy and the sequel to Range of Ghosts. Set in a world drawn from our own great Asian Steppes, this saga of magic, politics and war sets Re-Temur, the exiled heir to the great Khagan and his friend Sarmarkar, a Wizard of Tsarepheth, against dark forces determined to conquer all the great Empires along the Celedon Road.


Excerpt

1

The desert writhed with poison life. A rustling carpet surrounded Edene on every side. Barbed tails curving over scuttling carapaces that were patterned sand-colored or stone-colored, glossy or dull, rust or taupe or black or brown.

Tireless, escorted by scorpions, she walked through day and night, through the hazy scent of baked stone. Light and darkness had no meaning to what Edene had become. Unpunctuated by sleep, the days joined seamlessly. She could not have said how many had passed when a sunset found her, light-footed and easy, climbing a rocky trail leading into a valley that cut a low sweep of hills. Mountains rose before her, one tier beyond another. She did not recognize the range, but they could not stop her.

Always east. She must move east.

There were ruins here, the remnants of a stone-and-daub house huddled like a mud wasp’s nest against a great boulder. This was the first sign of habitation that Edene had seen breaking the desolate Rahazeen outlands since she escaped Ala-Din, the rocky clifftop fortress of the cult of Nameless assassins. Only her wits and the magic of the hammered green-gold ring weighting her left hand had won her free.

Edene paused, contemplating the winding path before her, the slumped carcass of the little house so alien in this landscape. The hills must be wetter than the plateau she had just walked across: their grim line against the evening sky was softened like a man’s ill-shaven cheek by a thorny fuzz of shrubs.

Dust turned the sunset yellow behind those hills—east, still east. She was not out of Rahazeen territory yet. But perhaps if she walked the night through, the sun would rise in the same place come morning, and she would know by the changing skies that she was one nation closer to home.

She pressed a hand against her belly. The babe had quickened savagely since she fled Ala-Din, and now she endured a spate of blows that felt like dried rice fire-puffing inside her. It did not pass swiftly, but she was growing accustomed to the child’s ferocity.

While she waited out the assault, her eye fell again on the tumbledown lodging. Curiosity drew her off her eastward path for the first time. The hut’s walls were standing and roof collapsed, as if someone had carefully stepped in the center. She wondered who had lived here, and a few moments to explore would cost her little in light of the length of the journey still before her.

Her escort of scorpions broke away from her footfalls. A scurrying wave crested and crept, lapping the bottoms of stone walls and mounting crumbling mortar to whisper over the sills of deep, narrow windows. The hut had no remaining door, but a cracked stone lintel still bridged a narrow gap. Edene turned to pass beneath it—

And drew up short.

Within the hut velvet blackness puddled; without lay blue, quiet gloaming. Framed within the door, outlined against that interior darkness, stood an inhuman creature as gray-blue as the twilight hour and as velvety as the dark. It had a long face with a wrinkled muzzle, mobile ears that focused on her brightly, and the huge soft eyes of a night predator. Even in the evening’s shadow, its pupils had contracted to pinpricks in the green-gold watered silk of its irises.

“Mistress of Secrets,” it said, in a language that hurt her ears but that she nevertheless understood, despite never having heard it before. A thick tongue showed behind chipped, yellowed fangs. “Far we have traveled to find you. I am Besha Ghul. I have come to bring you home to old Erem.”

“Erem?” She’d heard of the dead empire, as who had not? But it lay beyond the Western Ocean and the Uthman Caliphate—and no ruined city could serve her now, when she needed to win home to her clan, to her people, and to the father of her child.

For the whole duration of her captivity, she had restrained herself from brooding on Temur—where he was, if he was safe. If he was seeking her, as she suspected he must be. But now she was free, and the itch to return to him was the only fire close to as strong as the curling certainty that had risen in her since she escaped Ala-Din: that she would go home to the steppe and arise a queen.

“Erem,” said the Besha Ghul, its ears flicking to and fro. “You wear its ring upon your finger, Mistress of Secrets, Lady of Ruins, Queen of the Broken Places. You walk half within its veil already. It is deep time; its nights and twilights speed like quicksilver to hurry you through the shallow days of this insubstantial modern world. You have more time than the world, my Queen.”

She considered that. She considered the blur of days—had they been days at all, then? Nights? Or something else, some shape of time passing that her experience had not yet prepared her for?

“You call me by many titles,” Edene said. “But I am not those things. I am Tsareg Edene, not your Queen of Ruins.”

Besha Ghul bowed low from the hips, legs bent back to counterbalance arms and torso that swept the dust. Edene saw gray hide stretched gaunt over the shadows between ribs, in bony buttocks. It had no tail.

“You wear the Green Ring,” it said, voice muffled by the dust.

Edene glanced down at the plain green-gold band upon her finger. “Rise,” she said, recollecting some of the gravitas of the matriarch of her clan. “And explain yourself.”

Besha Ghul straightened up as if the depth of its bow were no inconvenience, brushing a little yellow dust from its jowls with clawed fingertips. “You wear the Green Ring,” it repeated, as if reciting a refrain. “The beasts of the desert that crawl and sting are yours to command. Yours is the domain of what is broken and what lies in ruins. Yours is jurisdiction over secrets and mysteries and those things intentionally forgotten.”

“I see,” said Edene. And perhaps she did: in response to Besha Ghul’s words, the ring on her hand burned with a wintry chill. It seemed desperately heavy. The babe kicked and kicked again.

Besha Ghul smiled once more, or at least skinned back its flews. “It is I who am charged to teach you how to wield these things. To teach you the power you must employ, when you are Queen. Will you come to Erem with me and meet your army?”

“If I am your Queen,” Edene said, “then I would have you guide me to my consort.”

Besha Ghul smiled, gray soft lips drawing back from dry yellow teeth meant for tearing flesh. “First you must be crowned, your majesty. Erem is real. It is the true empire, and all khans and kings and caliphs that follow it are insignificant before its memory. How much more insignificant shall they be before its rebirth? When you wear its crown, Lady of Ruins, all the world will bow before you.”

When I am Queen. She pictured Temur at her side. Her clan safe. Her child in her arms. Mares and cattle grazing peacefully to the horizon.

Edene felt strong and certain. Her mouth curved in a beneficent smile. She said, “I will come with you to Erem.”

* * *

Mukhtar ai-Idoj, al-Sepehr of the Nameless sect of the Rahazeen, knelt in contemplation before a plain, unornamented human skull. Paper-dry and brown with age, it lay upon a low table in a room whose every wall was serried with unlit lamps. The skull reflected in the table’s gilt and red-enameled surface as if it lay mirrored on blood.

Other than being relict of a dead man, it seemed quite ordinary and inoffensive in the dim evening light.

It was the skull of Danupati, the ancient warrior-emperor of the Lizard Folk. To al-Sepehr’s honed otherwise senses, it reeked of the ancient knotworks of curse that bound it—and bound every land over which Danupati, once God-Emperor, had held sway.

Al-Sepehr had lowered his indigo veil, letting the night air cool his face. He was not praying. As the high priest of the Nameless and a priest of the Scholar-God, he did not pray to idols, to relics, or to ancestors. He prayed by preserving knowledge, for that was his God’s glory—and his own. Nor was he incanting, precisely, for he had no intention of casting spells with the essence of the dead emperor.

He was contemplating, that was all. Allowing the possibilities of the future to fill up the room, his mind, his awareness.

Al-Sepehr was now a man of middle years, his eyesight not so keen as it once had been, and his joints ached from contact with the hard stone floor. He could have fetched a rug—or had one of his wives or servants fetch it—but for the time discomfort suited him. If he meant to watch the night through and give this dead man a proper vigil, the pain would help him stay awake.

Privation kept a man hardened.

The sun finished setting while he watched the skull, his hands folded, his eyes blinking only slowly. Shadows spilled from the corners of the room. The brass lamps—each tidy beside the next, handles and wicks militarily aligned—at first gleamed dully, then lost their luster as darkness grew absolute. The room should have reeked of lamp fuel—or the herbs steeped in oil to sweeten it—but instead it smelled dusty, dry. The lamps stood empty.

Al-Sepehr reached out one hand—the left one—and laid it on the crown of Danupati’s skull as if gentling a child. He could see nothing, but he knew exactly the distance and the reach of his arm.

“So, ancient king,” he murmured. “Where is the war you vowed would greet any attempt to move your bones?”

Silence followed, long and thin, until it was broken by the papery, powdery whir of insect wings. Not one or two, but thousands, filling the air with the scent of dust and mustiness: the flutter of ten thousand butterflies, then silence as they settled.

Swiftly but individually, the empty brass lamps in their ranks lit themselves, revealing in their own increasing light that each...

Copyright © 2013 by Elizabeth Bear


Reviews

Shattered Pillars - Elizabeth Bear

- valashain
  (1/22/2014)
Shattered Pillars

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