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THE JOY OF THE WORLD
Hail Him. Behold Him.
Wolf lord, lord of carrion,
Joy to the sword that is girt with blood.
Man-killer, life-stealer, death-bringer, life’s thief.
King-throned, glorious His rule:
The sea-eaten shore, the stones of the mountains,
The eagles, the fleet deer, the wild beasts,
Men in their cities, rich in wisdom,
All are bound to Him,
His word is law.
With bloody hands He governs,
Sets His rule and His measure,
A strong tree, a storm at evening,
The sea rising up to swallow a ship.
The night coming, the sudden light that makes the eyes blind,
The floodtide, the famine, the harrowing, the pestilence.
King and Warrior.
Golden one, shining, glorious.
Life’s judgement, life’s pleasure, grave of hope.
The city of Ethalden, that is the most beautiful place on all the black earth of Irlast. Its towers are made of pearl and silver. Its walls are solid gold. It stands on a great plain of rich grassland, on the banks of the river Jaxertane that flows wild down to the cold dark endless sea. It is a jewel beyond comparing. The glory of all the world. Wondrous thing! Look upon it and be blinded, dazed by its magnificence, fall upon your knees, worship, marvel, worship. Oh you who are nothing, you who are but maggots, crawling pitifully in the bitter dust. Kneel and give thanks, rejoice that you have lived to see it, that such brilliance was raised in this blessed era of the world’s end.
Perfection is built here! Kneel, kneel, cry out in terror, turn away your eyes from its radiance! Its streets are paved with marble. Its palaces are ivory and white glass. Its bells ring out in music, the air is filled with perfumes, the river runs clear, the corn grows golden, the trees are heavy with sweet fruit. Treasure houses stacked with riches. Wealth beyond mortal ken. Numberless are its herds, its flocks, its swift horses; its people dress in silks and satins, its women beautiful as goddesses, its men strong as giants, in their eyes is the light of knowledge and power over all things.
Its foundations are living bodies, flesh putrefying, bones cracking beneath its weight. Its mortar is tears and blood. At its heart there stands a palace of desolation, built in honour of a mighty king.
Such a king…
You think, do you, that he would have died somewhere, in the desert, on the shores of the White Isles, in the ruins of Ethalden, if I had not saved him? That none of this would have been? You think, do you, that without him the world would be at peace? If he died, do you think that there would be no war, no cruelty no murder, no pain, the world would be a good and loving place? “Why do we do this?” I asked him once. And he looked out across the world that we have made, and did not speak. “If not me,” he said at last, “then perhaps someone else.”
My own city of Sorlost they say has been brought low by killing violence. We did not do that. “The people of Sorlost deserved it,” you will say. “Child killers. Blood-sodden. Their city is based on murder, go there, Thalia, send Marith your husband there to punish them.”
The people of Sorlost are wise. They merely make visible what all the world is based on.
Take the bread your children are eating, send them to bed hungry, give the bread instead to the starving poor.
In Sorlost, at least, they do not lie. In Ethalden, our tower built on human suffering, we do not lie.
Osen Fiolt is a bad man, for following him, for doing as he orders, for being his friend. Osen wants power and wealth, does not care where it comes from. Oh, yes. I wish Osen was not his friend. But I am worse, because I married him? Because I live my life? Because I do not stick a knife into his throat? To me, he has always been kind and loving. To me, he is a good man. As for the rest—I turn my eyes away from it, as we all do. Refugees and beggars stagger across the world, men, women, children, their tears are a drowning flood: what do you do? What more can be expected of me? Should I be better than anyone else is?
It grieves me, yes, I weep over it, what we have come to, what the world is.
In a different life…
In a different place…
There is no different life. There is no different place. There is here and now, there is what I have, what I can be, what I can do.
Kill him? Oh, it is rather too late for that, is it not? Leave him? Why should I do that? Because it would be a better thing than staying with him? Because I should suffer, for marrying him? Because he has done harm to others, and thus I should not find pleasure in his love? Because he is a bad man and so I should not love him, because you do not want me to love a bad man because I am—what? Because I should be better than that? If I ran away to the other side of Irlast, dressed myself in sackcloth and ashes, did penance with aching hands, tended the starving, kissed the wounds of the sick—so what? So what?
You do not expect Osen to leave him, renounce all of this. You do not expect this of any of his friends.
You will still say, perhaps, that I am a fool, lovestruck, blinded, his victim, that I would flee from him if I could, because…
We sit together, talk, laugh, argue, hold great feasts and parties, walk in the gardens, ride in the fields, sit quietly to read. I am trying to improve his taste in poetry. He is introducing me to the Pernish stories of his childhood. But I should not love him, because…?
We march onwards, an army like a storm, like the clouds rushing over the sun. The world trembles. The men in their bronze armour sing the paean, hold their heads high, smile as they march. The world bows before us. Every soldier here in our army, they are as mighty as kings. Life is good, life is joyous for them.
That is not a good thing, no. It would be better indeed if we were all to be men of peace.
But we are not men of peace.
I will not be blamed for living my life.
Marith Altrersyr, King of the White Isles and Ith and Illyr and Immier and the Wastes and the Bitter Sea, King of All Irlast, Ansikanderakesis Amrakane, Amrath Returned to Us, King Ruin, King of Shadows, King of Dust, King of Death
Marith Altrersyr the King of All Irlast stood on the brow of a hill looking across towards the city of Arunmen.
It was still early morning. Soft pale light, pink and golden. In the valley the scent of wood smoke, the smoke rising to blur the light. Birds wheeled in the sky, turning, twisting like outstretched fingers. Reminded him of Thalia’s hair. They called harsh and lonely. Hungry, cold, fragile things. Moved in the sky turning and turning. Their cries muffled by the ringing of a blacksmith’s hammer. Wheeled and called, flew off to the east.
The sun caught their wing beats. Black and white in the sky. The hammer rang out loudly. Then silence. Waiting.
Marith turned. Looked down the hillside. Osen Fiolt, the Lord of Third Isle, the Lord of the Calien Mal, Death’s Lieutenant, Captain of the Army of Amrath. His best friend. Osen rode up towards him. A young man, dark and handsome but for the scar on his face.
“Marith! They’re waiting for you!”
Marith rubbed his eyes. From across towards the city came a distant rumble. A flash of white fire against the city walls. The birds rushed back overhead, black and silver. Singing. He took a long drink from the bottle at his belt. Watched the course of the birds across the sky.
Osen pulled up his horse beside him. “Beautiful morning for it.”
“I think it might snow.”
“Do you? A bit early in the year for snow?”
“Thalia would like it.”
“The men wouldn’t.”
“No. No, I suppose not. But it would be beautiful. Snowfall. Don’t you think?”
Osen said, “Are you ready, then?”
Looked back over the morning landscape. The hammer rang again. Smell of wood smoke. Another distant flash of light against the city’s walls. Dark cloud twist of birds, rising afraid.
He drank from the bottle. “I suppose I’ll have to be.”
Swung himself up onto his horse. A white stallion, saddled in red and silver, red ribbons plaited in its tail, gold on its hooves, sharp bronze horns decorating its head. Osen brought his own horse to fall in beside him. Reached out and their hands touched.
“Third time lucky?”
“Third time lucky.”
They kicked their horses into a gallop.
“Amrath!” Marith shouted. “Amrath and the Altrersyr! Death! Death!”
Before him, on the plain, the Army of Amrath stood to attention. Bronze armour. Bronze swords. Long iron-tipped ash-wood sarris spears. Their helmets plumed in red horse-hair. Dark-tempered bronze over staring eyes. Horses armoured and masked, heads like skulls, blinkered, blind to everything. Red standards fluttering. Raw and bloodied. Dripping screaming weeping over the army’s lines. In the sky above, two dragons circled. Red and black. Green and silver. Huge. Shadowbeasts danced around the dragons, formless faceless long-clawed.
The Army of Amrath.
All of them.
Waiting for him.
Marith rode along the front of his army, Osen at his side. He drew his sword. Raised it, shining, the morning sun flashing on the blade. White metal, engraved with rune signs. The rune letters burned in the sunlight. The ruby in the sword’s hilt glowed scarlet. Blue fire flickered down the length of the blade.
Henket. Mai. Eth. Ri.
Death. Grief. Ruin. Hate.
He shouted to the men, his voice loud as the sword’s light. “Soldiers of Amrath! My soldiers! Twice now, this city has resisted us! Resisted us and betrayed us! Now, today, it will fall!”
An explosion shattering against the black walls of the city. White fire, silent as maggots. White fire, silent, and then screams. The wind caught his cloak and sent it billowing out behind him. Dark red, scab-coloured, tattered into a thousand shreds of lace. Dried blood flaked off it. Fresh blood oozed off it. It stank of blood and shit and rot and smoke. He wore his silver crown but was otherwise bareheaded, the morning sun bright on his black-red hair. His skin like new-spun silk, smooth and perfect, gleaming. His grey eyes soft like a child’s eyes. Soft pale grey like moths.
“Destroy it!” Marith shouted to his army. “Destroy it! Tear it down! Let nothing be left alive!”
“Amrath!” the army screamed back at him. “Amrath and the Altrersyr! Death and all demons! Death! Death! Death!”
Columns of soldiers began to move forward. Siege engines hurled rocks running with banefire. Mage fire, white and silent. Dragon fire, glowing red. The beat of war drums. Clamour of trumpets. Voices chanting out the death song. Slowly slowly moving forward. Slow and steady, the drums beating, fire washing over them, rocks and banefire loosed from war engines on the city’s walls. Falling dying, trampled by those behind them. Slowly steadily marching on. Slow long ranks marching towards the city. Destroy it! Destroy it! The only thought in all the world in all their minds. The dead zone between the city and the encircling army. Broken bones and ruin and dead men. Banefire. Mage fire. Dragon fire. War drums and war trumpets. And now, loud and urgent, the thump of battering rams against the city’s gates. War ships in the harbour, grappling. A storm rising. Towering huge dark waves.
“Amrath! Amrath! Death!”
Waves of men breaking against the city. Waves of water. Waves of fire. Waves of death and pain.
Snow began to fall.
White flakes caught in Marith’s shining hair.
“Break it! Break it! Down! Down!”
The ram smashed into the Tereen Gateway. Again. Again. Again. A tree trunk thicker than a man’s armspan, carved at its end into a dragon-head snarl. Covered with bloody ox-hides, to keep it from catching fire. Obscene. Comic. Pumping away in out, in out, in out, steaming dripping bloody battering pounding raping iron wood meat. Three huge siege engines hurling rocks and banefire. Machines on the walls hurling rocks and banefire back at them.
Marith circled his horse, making it rear up. Gilded hooves sharp like knives.
“Break it down! Now!”
A shower of boiling sand poured down from the battlements. Soldiers collapsed screaming, clawing at their skin. Inside their armour, burning. In their hair. In their mouths and eyes. The bloody hides on the ram hissed. Cheers from the Arunmenese defenders above.
The ram swung again. Off to the left, a blinding white flash and a dragon’s roar. The gate groaned. Splintering. Shadowbeasts gathered, a clot in the air. Shapes twisting, forming, dissolving, huge shapeless dark beating shrieking wings. They dived together, claws and wing beats, jaws opening faceless, clawed limbs tearing down the stones of the wall.
“Now! Now! Break it down!” Marith’s horse reared, trampling snow. Red-hot sand showered down around him. His horse screamed in pain. Fire arrows thudding into the battering ram. His soldiers’ bodies piling on the ground.
The sky roared at him. A thousand screaming raging mouths. Another flash. The dragon howled. The men fell back shrieking in fear. White light rising up before him. Spear-shape. Cloud-shape. Shining. Grass-green eyes opening, staring; hands reaching for him, numberless beyond counting, and in every hand a sword with a blade of silver light.
God thing. Life thing. A demon conjured up to protect the city. The great high holy god of Arunmen whose temple was gold and green bronze.
Bastard thing. Twice now, it had beaten him off.
“Get the gate open! Now! Now! The ram!”
His sword was shrieking in his hand. Red jewel at the hilt winking at him. Glittering. Red light like the red light of the Fire Star. The King’s Star. His star. There’s your star, Marith, and there’s mine. Look! A red jewel, the sword forged for him in the Tower of the Eagle, back before he was truly king, forged in blood and ashes, forged to look like the sword the first Amrath had owned. He’d had a sword before, once, with a red jewel in its hilt, he had named it Sorrow, and this sword he had named Joy.
Marith charged his enemy. So tiny, a man shape on horseback, throwing himself headlong towards this towering raging maelstrom of light. Behind him the ram started. Drumming on the gateway. Break it down! Break it down! His siege engines loosed all together. The machines on the walls showering sand and rocks and banefire back at his men. Mage fire. Dragon fire. Dying.
Marith King Ruin met the light god with a crash.
All his vision was silver.
Slurred. Like being underwater. All the movements just a moment too slow. Cool and soft around him. It felt like Thalia’s skin. A hundred sword blades meeting his sword stroke. A hundred sword blades cutting at him. Grass-green eyes closed and opened. All staring. Sad sad eyes: they looked like the eyes of an old man. Marith fought it. Cut at it. A sword and a hand fell away and another grew up in their place. He cut it again, again a hand falling, again another hand growing up. Swords struck back at him. Glanced off him. Warded them off, didn’t feel them, and then a blade got down into the meat of his shoulder, and a wound opened up dry and ashy, and he hurt. He lunged deep into its body. The centre of it, white silver light swallowing him. His horse was screaming. His horse was dead. It reared and kicked at the light surrounding it. Gilded hooves coming down. The grass-green eyes closed and opened. Countless silver swords stabbed at him.
Bastard stupid thing. Twice now, it had beaten him.
The battering ram thudded against the Tereen Gateway. Trumpets rang for an assault on the walls. Voices shouting: “Ladders! Ladders! Up there! Get moving!” Soldiers rushing up them. Fast with knives clutched in their teeth. A ladder falling backwards, soldiers falling from it dying. Spiralling down off the ladders screaming in a cloud of red-hot sand.
Snow, falling over everything. White snow, black ash, silver fire, red blood. Snowflakes silent and soft as feathers. Muting the sound.
Memory of snow falling, the day he killed his father. White blossom, falling like snowflakes, as they cheered him entering the cities of half the world.
Thalia would like the snow, he thought.
The light god wounded him. Hard, raw pain in his arm, making him almost drop his sword Joy. He cut off hands and swords and they grew up stronger, swords stabbing. Grass-green eyes staring at him. Twice, this damned thing had defeated him. Twice, his soldiers had been forced back. Fire hissed on the bloody ox-hides. The ram beginning to burn. Men dying. Men rushing up to replace them pounding it hard at the gate. The ladders trembling, swaying like bird-legs, another going over, soldiers falling, one soldier falling was burning, fell like a star. Soldiers stumbling blinded by red-hot sand.
Osen’s voice shouting furiously, “Break it! Break it! Destroy it! Now!”
White fire washing over the battering ram. The ox-hides smoking, burning, men dying, men rushing up wounded and bloody to take their place. The dead horse reared and kicked at the light god. Knife-sharp gilded hooves. Marith cut and hacked at the light god. Swords falling. Swords cutting him. Grass-green eyes opened and closed.
The gate shattered open beneath the beating of the ram. The Army of Amrath surged forward. Trampling their dead and dying. Fighting each other to be first through the gate. A trumpet rang out triumphant. Cheering. Screaming.
The light god roared in fury. Swords and hands ripping at Marith. Marith smashed back at it.
Shouts and cheering turning to screams as the machine on the walls showered down burning sand. The shadows rose up to destroy it. A bright white flash of mage fire sent them burning back. The machine loosed more sand, shimmering as it came down.
The Army of Amrath surging in through the gateway. Through the shower of sand falling. Through blasts of white and silver mage fire. Through shuddering falling walls. Soldiers rushing up the ladders. Up onto the battlements. Trying to get to the war engines. Mage fire crashed over them. Burning. More and more rushing up behind.
Voices shouting the war song: “Death! Death! Death!”
Marith hacked at the light god. Grass-green eyes staring at him. Numberless hands and sword blades. Swirling silver all around him, washing him, cool and soft. He hacked like hacking at a tree trunk. Ignored the swords cutting him. Nothing could harm him. Remember that! They cut him and they hurt him but there was nothing. Dry ash wounds, blood like rust, nothing to bleed, nothing to die. Like a dried-up river. Dry dead dust. A famine. He slashed at the thing’s shining light, cut it into pieces, over and over, all the hands and the swords cutting him. Grass-green eyes staring at him. He cut them. Destroying them. Hammering down his sword blade. Over and over and over and over. The dead horse reared and kicked at it. Bit at it with yellow teeth. Cut and cut and cut.
A burst of light. White and silver. Brighter than sunlight. The snow shining with every colour of the rainbow. Light reflected in every soldier’s eyes.
Scream like glass and bells ringing. A thousand rushing shooting stars.
White light. Burning. White shining blazing sparks of fire. Cut and cut and cut and cut.
Twice, it had defeated him.
Third time lucky, indeed.
Marith drew his breath. Patted his horse to thank it.
Charged after his soldiers through the ruins of the gate.
King Ruin. King Death. Such joy and such wonder. The one true perfect thing.
Inside the Tereen Gateway was a killing ground. Rubble, rotting corpses, barricades, fires. A crude wall, too high for his soldiers to climb over, thrown up behind.
“Hold!” a voice was screaming. “Whatever comes at us! Hold! Hold!” Gritted lines gritted teeth gritted spears, grey hopeless dead men. The last defenders of Arunmen. Marith felt almost sorry for them. Their swords and spears trembled in their hands. They knew. When he first crossed the river Alph, Arunmen had surrendered unconditionally, thrown open its gates, feasted and crowned him king. Hanged its last king from the gates of the palace as a welcome gift. Two months after they crowned him, the people of Arunmen had declared themselves a free city, massacred the garrison he’d left. Ungrateful bastards! Just because he’d been a bit tied-up in Samarnath city of towers and wretchedly difficult suicidal “freedom or death we shall not yield” maniacs, they thought they could turn around and thumb their noses at him?
He charged into the line of defenders, hacking at them. An arrow thudded into his back; he felt the heat of its fires, shrugged it off, killed someone. The dead horse screamed. Its mane was burning. Delightful smell of burning hair. There were spears in his face, jabbing at him hitting out with his sword. The ruby on the hilt shining. White light rainbows on the blade. His face flushed, bloodied. Blood and dust in his hair. Beautiful. Shining like diamonds. Shining like all the stars in the heavens, like sunlight on water, beautiful perfect shining with rainbows, moon-white skin and red-black shining hair, killing them. White-silver blood-red scab rot filth death ruin screaming his men on in through the rubble of the gate. The men coming on behind him, grappling with the defenders, climbing and tearing at the inner wall.
He killed someone else. A third. A fourth. Shouts from the walls: they’d got a bridgehead up there on the battlements. A body crashed down in front of him. Helpfully took out an Arunmenese soldier rushing forward with a nasty big sword. A crash and a cheer off from the Salen Gateway. That gate too was breached. Osen and his men would be in.
“Amrath and the Altrersyr!”
A horseman came riding at him, the horse already maddened by the screaming stink of blood. He struck the horse with his sword and it shattered, flew apart all these dark shapes. It was just a shadow. The rider came crashing down, the hilt of a sword in its hands, crumbled metal, crumbling away into dust, its hands were eaten away by the eaten metal. You see now, you see, even my touch is corruption, I am ruin, I am a god and after me is only death. He killed his enemies. Five, ten, twenty to a stroke. A hundred dead. A thousand. They crumbled before him, they were nothing, he is death and ruin, he cannot be harmed. Alone, he could kill them all, on and on, killing, he could stand here and kill for all eternity, every man and woman and child who walks the earth, he could kill. This is all that I am, he thought. All that I could ever be and do.
His hand moved, holding the sword. He closed his eyes. He felt things die beneath his sword strokes. Cut through them, cut the world open, they were ragged and torn apart, they looked like clouds torn ragged by the wind and the moonlight shines through them and the sky behind them is both darker and bright with light.
Smoke was rising over the city. Marith raised his face in joy as the red dragon flew overhead. A great warm wash of dragon fire. Warm soft flames caressing his face. He could feel the battering ram pounding against the Sea Gate, the storm waves smashing against the harbour. Crash as the siege engines loosed. More and more of his men coming in around him, fanning out, pushing the defenders back. The city before them burning. Dragon fire. Mage fire. Banefire. Falling from the heavens. A roar of triumph off to his left from the walls: voices shouting, hailing him. Fighting. Killing. Pressing onwards. His men pouring in. Flowing into the city, fighting, killing, tearing it down. The red dragon came down to land. Crushed bodies: soldiers, women, children; children throwing roof tiles, firewood, fighting trying to defend the city with ragged bare hands. The dragon breathed out flames and consumed them. Children throwing roof tiles. Women with kitchen knives. Smashed the buildings of the city down over them. Burned them. Cut them open in its jaws. The shadowbeasts lifted them, dismembered them, dropped them falling in pieces spiralling to the ground. Snow falling around the bodies. Red blood. White ash. White snow. Soldiers in at every breach, fighting. Pressing forward. Over and over. Endless. Rolling climax building. Wave after wave after wave. His soldiers ripping everything apart. Dismembering everything. Opening the city up like a body. Battering it like waves on rock. Marith fighting, killing, the whole city spread before him, watching it fighting, watching it falling, watching it burn and break and yield and fall into dust. On and on his men running through the city, killing everything. The storm beating against the harbour. The siege engines loosing banefire and rock.
The defenders retreating. Their city burning. Blood running in torrents. Pulling back to their own houses. Hoping without hope that their own families might somehow be saved. The snow coming thicker. Muting sound and vision. Cold sweet silent white air. The Army of Amrath spilling over everything. Wading through the city’s dying. Soaked and mired in death. That smell it had! Heavy, sweet, honeyed tang. Breathe it in, it never goes stale. The smell of the butcher’s block that is the smell of power and the illusion of living. Every death to be treasured. Hoarded. I did this. I made this.
Blood and filth and human ruin: that is the face of god. Arunmen is taken! Arunmen is fallen! And here now he is king.
Osen Fiolt and Valim Erith met him at the gates of the palace of Arunmen. Onyx towers like the city walls, high as cliffs, black as storm clouds, its roofs gold tiles but they’d stripped off the tiles to pay for their pointless futile war. Osen had a squad of men guarding it. They can have the city, Marith had told his captains, but the palace is to be kept intact for me.
"Gritty and glorious! A great read."
—Miles Cameron, author of The Traitor Son Cycle on The Court of Broken Knives
- "Fierce, gripping fantasy, exquisitely written; bitter, funny, and heart-rending by turns."—Adrian Tchaikovsky, Arthur C. Clarke Award winner for Children of Time on The Court of Broken Knives
- "Grim, gritty, and fast paced; with great battles scenes! Anna Smith-Spark is one to watch."—Andy Remic, author of the Blood Dragon Empire series on The Court of Broken Knives
- "Anna Smith-Spark writes in a unique voice with such pace and veracity your imagination has to struggle to keep up with your eyes."—Adrian Collins, Grimdark Magazine on The Court of Broken Knives
- "Captivating."—Marc Turner, author of the Chronicles of the Exile series on The Court of Broken Knives
"All hail the queen of grimdark fantasy!"
—Michael R. Fletcher, author of Beyond Redemption on The Court of Broken Knives
- "Spark's gripping debut is definitely one to read and prize."—Publishers Weekly (starred review) on The Court of Broken Knives
- "Holy crap, this is good!"—Grim Tidings on The Court of Broken Knives
- "Spark's first novel lives up to its billing as a 'grimdark' tale. The setting may be bleak and dreary, but the worldbuilding is well done and the characters fit right in. Troubled, solitary and downright drug-addled as the protagonist is, readers will come around to his side as the reasons why he seeks for the throne he lost are revealed."—RT Book Reviews on The Court of Broken Knives
- "It's a bold experiment and feels like something new. An interesting book to read and fascinating to discuss afterwards!"—Mark Lawrence on The Court of Broken Knives
- "Exciting twists and turns...Spark keeps the surprises coming all the way to the end. "—Booklist on The Court of Broken Knives
- "An exciting new voice in dark fantasy."—Scott Lynch
- On Sale
- Aug 13, 2019
- Page Count
- 576 pages