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The Tower of Living and Dying
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Marith has been a sellsword, a prince, a murderer, a demon, and dead. But something keeps bringing him back to life, and now there is nothing stopping him from taking back the throne that is rightfully his.
Thalia, the former high priestess, remains Marith’s only tenuous grasp to whatever goodness he has left. His left hand and his last source of light, Thalia still believes that the power that lies within him can be used for better ends. But as more forces gather beneath Marith’s banner, she can feel her influence slipping.
Read the second book in this “gritty and glorious!” (Miles Cameron) epic fantasy series reminiscent of Joe Abercrombie and Mark Lawrence where the exiled son of a king fights to reclaim his throne no matter the cost.
In the tall house in Toreth Harbour, the High Priestess Thalia lay awake in the darkness, listening to her lover’s breath. Faint noises outside the window: a woman’s voice calling, drunken singing and a shriek and a crash. Laughter. The wind had risen again. She could hear the sea, the waves breaking on the shingle, the gulls.
I have seen a dragon, she thought. I have seen a dragon dancing on the wind. I have seen the sea. The sky. The cold of frost. The beauty of the world. I have felt the sun on my face as it rose over the desert. I have felt clear water running beneath my feet. I have known sorrow and pain and happiness and love.
She sat up and brought a candle to burning. The man beside her stirred at it, clawing roughly at his face. She smoothed her hand over his forehead, and he sighed and relaxed back deeper into sleep.
King Marith Altrersyr. Amrath returned to us. King Ruin. King of Shadows. King of Dust. King of Death.
Dragonlord. Dragon killer. Dragon kin. Demon born.
Parricide. Murderer. Hatha addict.
The most beautiful man in the world.
She went over to the wall where his sword hung, took it up, walked back to the bed. For a moment her hands shook.
A kindness, she thought.
The gulls screamed at the window. Shadows crawled on the walls.
She raised the sword over his heart.
Looked at him.
A kindness. To her. To him.
But he’s so beautiful, she thought.
She put the sword down and curled back beside him.
Full morning. The green moors above the town of Toreth Harbour. Grass and wild flowers running down to the cliff top, dark rocks, weathered stone, the steep drop to the churning sea. Grey sky. Grey earth. Grey water. A rent in the world, a scar, a sore, where the tower of Malth Salene had stood proud above the town and the water, where a battle had been fought, where a young man had been crowned king.
Marith Altrersyr stood on the cliff top, looking at the ruins. In the light of day the battleground was a desolation. Rock and earth and flesh and blood that had cooled and set like poured glass. A sheen on it, also like glass. In places human faces stared up through the surface, drowned and entombed. A great fortress had stood here. Bedchambers, feasting halls, the chapel of Amrath the World Conqueror where Marith had knelt to receive his ancestor’s blessing as king. Treasures, beautiful objects, silks, tapestries, gold, gems. In a few hours, the army of the Ansikanderakesis Amrakane had destroyed it utterly. His soldiers’ horses snorted and shifted uneasily at the death stink. Even the gulls and the crows had flown.
I did this, Marith thought. So strange, to know that. I did this, I made this. This ruin, this triumph of ending: mine. The summation of my life, perhaps. I killed a man and razed a fortress to ashes and thus I must be a king.
Or nothing at all. A ruined building. A bit of burned ground, where men will rebuild the walls and the grass will regrow.
It was the most wonderful thing I have ever seen, he thought then. Seeing it fall. Destroying it. The most wondrous thing I have ever done.
The memory of it, burning: the walls had run with fire, liquid fire pouring over it; it had shone with fire like stones shine soaked in water, like rocks on the tideline washed with the incoming sea. Its walls had glowed, they had burned so brightly, the stone had been red hot and white hot. Banefire shot from trebuchets, hammering the walls to dust, eating the rocks and the dust and the ground beneath. The men fighting around it, over it, inside it: armed men of his father’s army, his own pitiful host from Malth Salene, unarmed servants, old men, kitchen girls. Struggling with each other, killing each other. Tearing down the walls of the fortress. Killing the animals in the courtyards. Cutting down the trees in the orchard beside the south wall. Such utter destruction. He remembered the trees burning, their branches red with fire; they had looked like a glorious forest of autumn beech trees. Sparks rising. Filling the sky. Blotting out all the stars. The earth churned with mud, black in the firelight and the evening darkness. His men dancing and clashing their swords, shouting for him, singing out his name, their faces stained with blood and smoke.
Glorious. Astonishing. Beautiful beyond all things.
They did this at my bidding, he thought. For me. I killed so many of them. They killed, they destroyed, they followed me. I killed them, he thought. And still they followed me.
And the killing. The killing, the fighting, it had been … ah, gods, it had been sweet.
He had left this place once with his best friend’s blood on his hands. Come back here bound and humiliated, a prisoner, contemplating his own death. And now here he was made king. I didn’t used to think I wanted to be king, he thought.
A strange thing to think.
A voice called, loud in the still cold air. “We’ve found it.”
Ah, gods. Marith turned, walked to where his soldiers were moving. He walked slowly. His heart beat very loud.
“My Lord King, we’ve found it.”
Marith rubbed at his eyes. Looked down. Looked away. Looked down.
His father’s body was stretched on the earth before him. Face down in the dust. Broken apart. Torn into shreds by his son’s blade, like hands devouring consuming him. I killed him, Marith thought again. I killed him. Ah, gods.
Marith bent, knelt by the body, stared. Dead eyes stared back at him. A look of astonishment on his father’s face. Had not believed that Marith would do it, even as the sword came down and down and down.
“Talk to him,” Thalia had said to him, one night only a few days ago, standing on the walls of Malth Salene looking at his father’s besieging campfires. “Can you not talk to him?”
He killed my mother. He told everyone that I was dead. He hated me. He was ashamed of me. What could I say to him?
The air hissed and writhed around Marith. Darker, colder air. The sound of waves crashing on the rocks of the shore beneath. His own heartbeat, like the beating of a bird’s wings or the thunder of horses’ hooves.
“Bring the body down to Toreth,” he ordered the soldiers. “Preserve it in honey. We will return it to Malth Elelane. Bury it with honour there.” Malth Elelane, the Tower of Joy and Despair, the seat of the Altrersyr kings. Home. My father’s father’s grave, he thought, and his father’s before that … All the way back to Altrersys, and to Serelethe herself, the mother of Amrath. The mother of a god. She who began it all. Who doomed me to this. Dragon born. Demon kin. The bloodline of the Altrersyr, whose very name is a whisper of pain and hate.
The air hissed and writhed around him. His father’s dead face. Flies were crawling on its open lips.
“Marith,” his father had cried out, as he killed him. He remembered that. Bringing his sword down, again, again, again, his father breaking, falling, shattered into pieces, crying out his name as he died. “Marith. Please.”
Can you not talk to him? Killing and killing. His sword so bright. The crash of bronze, his sword blade on his father’s armour; his father had tried to defend himself against him, tried to strike him back, the two of them hacking at each other, so close to each other, strike and strike and the ring of bronze. “Marith. Marith,” his father had cried to him. And he’d struck his father so hard, feeling his father’s body break beneath his sword blade, flesh and fat and bones and bloodshed, his father’s body opening up red and ruined beneath his sword strokes. Tear him into pieces. Hurt him. Empty him. Blood and blood and blood.
A king, Father! Look at me! I am a king!
Marith thought: he must have hated me.
Marith turned away from the body. The soldiers were lifting it awkwardly, in pieces, falling, flopping about, the head flopping back, black dried blood crusted on its throat. He thought: don’t run; in front of the soldiers, my soldiers, don’t run. And there in the burned earth before him a pile of tumbled stone, smudged with colour beneath the smoke, the mark of carving still clearly visible, the smooth curve of polished stone. The head of the statue of Amrath from the chapel, perfect and unharmed, cleanly severed at the neck.
He thought: don’t run. Not in front of the soldiers. My soldiers. Don’t run.
He went back towards his horse, stopped, stared round him, walked across the ruined ground north towards the cliff edge and the sea. There on the headland the ground was undisturbed, grass still growing, purple heather, the last yellow flowers of gorse, all the petals ragged and browned from the recent snow. A man’s body, a dagger clutched in a raised hand. A child’s body, eyes open to the sky. A mound of dark earth, topped with a stone carved with the crude image of a horse.
Carin’s grave. It had watched the battle, seen Carin’s murderer wade through blood triumphant and victorious, seen Carin’s family and Carin’s home destroyed.
“I’m sorry.” There was a flask of wine at his belt: Marith poured a libation over the gravestone. “You … perhaps you deserved this, Carin. That you did not have to see this. What I have done.”
The stone gave no answer. But they had always avoided speaking of what he was. Marith rubbed his eyes. All done here. All that had held anything for him here was dead and gone. He mounted his horse, rode down the golden paved road back to Toreth. The soldiers followed, carrying his father’s body on a bier, the eyes still staring up astonished into the grey sky. The air hissed and writhed. On the sea, the shadows of clouds ran. The sea was as cold as iron and the light did not dance on the waves. At the gates of the town the cheer rang out to greet him.
“King Marith! Ansikanderakesis Amrakane! Death! Death! Death!”
A single ray of sunlight broke through the clouds. Shone on Marith’s silver crown.
A king? He wore a crown, men knelt at his feet, he was first-born heir to the White Isles and his father the last king was dead. But the house of the king was far away on another island, his younger brother sat there on the throne of Altrersys in his place, the men of the White Isles believed him dead. King of a single town, a fishing port, his seat a fish merchant’s house with tall narrow rooms and worn floors. So glorious a place from which to reclaim his own.
Perhaps, Marith thought for a moment, it had been possibly foolish to raze the one fortress he had possessed to the ground. Burn the world and piss on the ashes and end up sleeping in a lumpy old bed with mildew stains on the wall. A triumph indeed.
There were sea-worn stones and bird feathers hanging on leather thongs beside the house’s doorway. They rattled as he went past. The owner of the house, the future Lord Fishmonger, the wealthiest herring merchant in Toreth Harbour, knelt like the rest as Marith entered. His hair was greasy, dandruff caught on his shoulders, beneath the perfume Marith was certain he smelled of fish. But he’d handed his house over so happily, so gladly, his face had been all bright with eagerness to let a blood-soaked boy throw him out of his lumpy old bed. Surely the greatest honour a man could ever have, that.
Lord Fishmonger looked nervous. “My Lord King,” Lord Fishmonger said nervously. Marith thought: I must find out his name, I suppose. “My Lord King …”
Thalia came down the stairs. The sun came in through a window onto her face. She wore a white dress with pink and green flowers on it: in the golden light, with her brown skin and black hair, she looked like a may tree in bloom. Marith closed his eyes. Opened them. Too bright to look at. The sunlight was bright on her, and her face was nothing but light.
She was holding her cloak in her arms.
She looked at him for a very long time. Seemed about to speak.
He thought: she is leaving me.
He thought: I have made it safe for her to leave me. And now she will go. The realization struck him: she did not choose to come here with me. I rescued her from a stranger’s violence; she came here with me as a prisoner; she was trapped with me in a fortress under siege. And now that I have broken the siege she will turn and walk away.
She’s too good for me, he thought. Parricide. Vile thing. King of Death.
Lord Fishmonger, edging around beside him, said, “My Lord King …”
A cloud passed over the sun. The light faded. Thalia’s blue eyes dark and cautious. She did not speak. In the shadow, she looked like the stone on Carin’s grave.
Marith said, “Thalia?”
She looked at him. A very long time, she seemed to look at him.
“Marith,” she said. She seemed uncertain. I don’t … I don’t understand, he thought. Look what I’ve done for you. All of this, Thalia, all of this I did for you. To give you all that you deserve. To make you queen.
She was the High Priestess of the Lord of Living and Dying, Great Tanis Who Rules All Things, the One God of the Sekemleth Empire of the Asekemlene Emperor of the Eternal Golden City of Sorlost. She who brings death to the dying and life to those who wait to be born.
She knew that he was lying, if he thought he had done any of it for her sake.
“Thalia,” he said again. “Don’t go. Please. I love you,” he said.
Her eyes narrowed. She held out her hand.
He said, “Please stay.”
She smiled. “For now,” she said. “As you ask me so well.”
Hardly an answer. Yet his heart leapt.
But things to do, the ragged soldiers of his army must be addressed, some plan must be made. Very well, Marith, you are king of one town on one island, you have an army of fishermen and servant girls, you have a borrowed horse and a borrowed sword. Your father left his ships at Escral a day’s march to the west of here, perhaps even now more of his men are coming for you. You can destroy a tower, yes, granted. Such a display of power, to break mortared stones and bring down a place of peace. But can you hold against warriors, in battle? Killer of babies, you are, Marith. Women. Old men. What can you really do?
The thoughts drumming in him. Horses’ hooves again, thundering. Beating wings. His eyes itched like fire. He stared at the walls, trying to see. Thalia sat opposite him in silence. A room that smelled of mildew, and a lumpy bed. All this, for you!
I was going to take you to Ith, he thought. To my uncle’s court there, to make you a princess, dress you in gold and diamonds, we could have spent our days riding in the forests, reading side-by-side by a warm fire, talking and dancing and drinking and fucking and doing nothing at all every day. That dream is over. And what have I got for it?
Again, he felt her about to speak.
A confusion in the corridor outside. Knocking on the door, urgent, timid. A relief, even, that someone had come to break the tension, make something happen, give him something to do. Lord Fishmonger, I really must find out his name, Marith thought, Lord Fishmonger at the door with a message: one of the lords of Third Isle had come, Lord Fiolt, with thirty armed men. Said he wished to do homage to his king. Said indeed that he was the king’s particular friend.
Well now. Thalia looked up, confused. Carin Relast was my only friend, he had once told her, my only friend, and he is dead.
Marith got up. “Osen Fiolt? I will see him in the main chamber, then. Have wine brought for us.” He tried to look away from Thalia. “I should see him alone.”
She frowned. Thinking.
“I need to be sure of him,” said Marith, “before I risk anything.” Again, he knew that she knew that this was not true.
She nodded. All so fractured and strained. Perhaps she should have left him. He could give her a bag of gold and a horse and send her on her way somewhere.
He went down the stairs to meet this man who named himself his friend.
Osen Fiolt was a young man, only a few years older than Marith. Dark haired, dark eyed, handsome, with a clever face. He knelt at Marith’s feet, his sword held out with the hilt toward Marith in offering. Had the sense at least not to look at the crudely carved chairs, the plastered walls, the pewter jug and clay cups.
Osen said, “You have my loyalty and my life, My Lord King. My sword is yours.”
Osen’s voice half frightened, half mocking. Marith Altrersyr, crowned “king.”
“Your life and your loyalty. Your sword.” Marith raised his eyes, looked at the ceiling. A stain up there where the winter storms had got in. The king’s own particular friend. “Yet you did not come, My Lord Fiolt, when my father was besieging Malth Salene. One thousand men and seven trebuchets and a magelord, and you did not come to my aid. So should I not kill you? For abandoning me? For not coming to my aid? Where was your sword then? Your loyalty? Your life?”
Osen’s face went white. “I … Marith … My Lord King … Marith …” He blinked, his hands working on the blade of the sword. He’d cut himself in a moment, if he wasn’t careful. “I …” All the mockery gone out of his voice. Marith Altrersyr, crowned king.
Men’s voices drifted in through the windows, soldiers being drilled into some pathetic semblance of order. The army of Amrath. Marith’s army. Marith’s loyal and beloved men. Osen raised his eyes to Marith’s face and Marith could see the thoughts there moving.
Osen said slowly, “I am the Lord of Malth Calien. I am sworn to Malth Elelane, to the throne of the White Isles, as a vassal of the king. I swore an oath to your father. While he lived, was I not bound to keep it? Whatever my true feelings might have been? Without loyalty, there is chaos. So where does a man’s loyalty lie, then, if not to his king above all else?”
Marith thought: we were friends, once, I suppose. I killed Carin. I killed my father. I suppose I may need some friends. He looked down at Osen. Tried to smile. Sitting at a table once, him and Osen and Carin, talking, joking, Osen’s half loving half mocking envious eyes. “I don’t trust him,” Carin often said.
“As far as I can remember, we decided it rather depended on the king.”
Osen tried to smile. “And on the all else.” Pause. “Though as far as I can remember, we never reached a definitive conclusion, since we had to break off discussing it for you to be sick.”
Young men drinking together. Drawing plans and dreams in spilled wine on the table top. “I’ll need some other lords around me,” Marith had reassured Carin, “when I’m king. Irlast’s a big place just for me and you.”
His eyes met Osen’s eyes. The tension broke.
Marith reached out and took the proffered sword. “Indeed. Very well then, My Lord Fiolt. I take your loyalty and your life and your sword.” He laughed. “Want to drink to the fact I’m still alive?”
Osen sheathed his sword. Laughed back. “Like I drank to the fact you were dead?”
“You drank to my being dead?”
“Drowning my sorrows. It’s what you would have wanted, I’d assumed. No?”
They grinned at each other and sat down by the fire, and Marith sloshed wine into two of the cups. “It’s utterly vile, of course. Half vinegar. But it was this or goat’s milk … We’ll be in Malth Elelane soon, and then we’ll have a proper feast to celebrate.”
Osen looked around the room. The rough furniture, the crude wall hangings, the ugly bronze lamp. “We can have a proper feast quicker than that, at Malth Calien. My loyalty, my life, my sword, and all the contents of my wine cellars, I’ll pledge you.” Raised his cup. “King Marith. May his sword never blunt and his enemies never cease to tremble and his cup never be empty of wine. May my sword never blunt and my life’s blood be shed for him.”
“And your cellars hold better things than this muck.”
“That I can pledge you unfailingly. If we ride today, I’ll have you drinking hippocras by my fires tomorrow evening.”
He had friends here. Of course he had friends here. He lived here. Friends and lovers and drinking companions and people who’d known him since he was born. A world.
Thus in the pale afternoon sun they marched out of Toreth, a long thin column of men in armour, with their king and queen at their head. Marith made a speech praising the soldiers’ valour, calling them the first, the truest of his warhost, the army of Amrath that would dazzle all the world. The soldiers beat their swords on their shields, shouting, cheering him. “King Marith! Amrath returned to us! King Marith! Death! Death! Death!” The townspeople mourned to see them leave, the shining new young king who had been made before their walls.
Familiar to Thalia, marching and riding and the creak and clash of armour and men’s voices grumbling and the tramp of boots. All she really knew of the world of men. She found some comfort in it, riding into the light and the wind. Marith’s face too was brighter, at peace, eyes glittering, looking out over the high curve of the land and the vast sky. The bier carrying his father’s body followed behind them, the horses drawing it stamped, tossed their heads.
She turned to look at the soldiers. The survivors of two battles against King Illyn, who had fought to make Marith king. She thought of them as like the priestesses in her Temple. They did as was required by Marith, as the priestesses had done as was required by the God. They died as was required, as the people of her city had volunteered themselves to die under her knife for the God. Life and death balanced. Those who need death dying, those who need life being born. She touched the scars on her left arm, where she had cut herself after every sacrifice. Rough scabbed skin that never fully healed.
She looked at them, and for a moment, a moment, she thought she saw a face she knew. Tobias, she thought. Tobias is here. And I thought, did I not, that I saw him last night. She closed her eyes. When she opened them, she could not see him. Men in armour, marching, helmets over their faces half covering their eyes. Tobias is probably on the other side of Irlast, she thought, with the money he made when he betrayed us. The men shifted position as the road widened coming down into a valley and yes, there was a man who looked a little like Tobias but was very clearly not him.
“Look,” said Marith, pointing. “The woods we rode in.” Brilliant red leaves clung to the beech trees, but the snow had brought the other trees’ leaves down.
Thalia smiled, remembering. They went through the wood for a while. The ground was soft and pleasant, their horses’ hooves made a lovely sound in the dried leaves and the beech mast. Thala saw a rabbit, its white tail flashing as it ran from the soldiers, and squirrels in the trees. Rooks cawed overhead.
“I like woodland,” she said to Marith. “I like this place very much.”
As he had done when they rode in the wood before, he turned his horse, rode to a beech tree in glory, brought back a spray of copper leaves. She placed them in the harness of her horse, like a posy of flowers. Soon after, they came to a river, forded it with the horses up to their knees. The river was very clear, the bottom smooth and sandy. Marith pointed out a place in the bank upstream where he said there was an otter’s nest. There were yellow flowers still in bloom on the further side of the river, and a mass of brown seed heads covered in soft white down that caught on their clothes and on the horses’ coats.
“This is a good place for fishing,” Marith said.
Then the land rose, the trees ended, they came out across the moors, riding into the wind. Thalia’s hair whipped out behind her. Marith’s vile blood-covered cloak billowed like a flag. In the last of the evening sun the hills were golden with sunlight, purple with heather flowers; a great number of birds turned and wheeled in the sky. This too, thought Thalia, this too is a beautiful place. They followed the banks of a stream for a while. In one place the water made a song as it rushed down over rocks.
I thought I could live here with him, Thalia thought. I don’t know, I don’t know … Why did I let him live? Not just for his beauty. For the beauty of this place?
They slept that night in a way house, built down in a valley between the sweep of two bare hills. The men set up the few tents they had or slept wrapped in their cloaks with fires against the cold. All so familiar. The god stone by the entrance made her shudder; she saw some of the men nod their heads to it, place little offerings of pebbles or a coin, a lock of their hair. But the things that walked on the lich roads were silent and afraid.
A crown, she thought. For that? Only for that?
- "Marked by intense, action-packed battle scenes, this grimdark epic fantasy is the escape you need right now."—Kirkus on The Tower of Living and Dying
- 'One of the most exciting voices not just in grimdark but in fantasy [...] eclipses almost everything else I've read this year'.—Grimdark Magazine on The Tower of Living and Dying
"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
- "This outstanding, unputdownable debut holds and horrifies like a blood-spattered tapestry. There's rough humour, high drama and a love of story-telling that shines through every page. Plus it's got dragons with bad breath. Brilliant."—The Daily Mail (UK) 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
- On Sale
- Aug 7, 2018
- Page Count
- 560 pages