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The Grave at Storm's End
By Devin Madson
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- Trade Paperback $21.99 $27.99 CAD
- ebook (Digital original) $4.99 $6.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around August 4, 2020. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Honour Is Wealth.
Emperor Kin Ts’ai—Emperor of Kisia
General Esta Rini—General of the Rising Army
General Hade Ryoji—General of the Rising Army. Head of the Imperial Guard
General Jikuko—General of the Rising Army
General Yi—General of the Rising Army
General Vareen—Commander of Mei’lian’s standing battalions
Commander Rusaka—Commander of the camp at Kogahaera
Captain Dendzi—Imperial Guard
Minister Bahain—Minister of the Right
Master Yara—Imperial Secretary
Councillor Gadokoi—Of the Imperial War Council
Governor Ohi—Of the Imperial Council
Father Kokoro—Court priest
Father Hoto—Priest of Kuroshima
Brother Jian—Priest. Endymion’s former guardian
Master Kenji—Imperial Physician
Apprentice Yoj—Master Kenji’s apprentice
Raijin—Kin’s brindle horse
We Conquer. You Bleed.
Emperor Lan Otako—Deceased. Eldest son
Emperor Tianto Otako—Deceased. Youngest son
Empress Li—Deceased. Mother to Hana and Takehiko
Emperor Katashi Otako, “Monarch”—Only son of Emperor Tianto
Lady Hana Otako, “Regent”—Only living daughter of Emperor Lan
Tili—Lady Hana’s maid
The Traitor Generals—General Manshin, General Roi, General Tikita
Captain Terran—One of General Manshin’s captains
Pike Captains—Captain Tan, Captain Chalpo, Captain Roni
Shin Metai—Deceased. A rebel and Lady Hana’s protector
Wen—A Pike and healer
Sight Without Seeing
Lord Nyraek Laroth—Deceased. Fifth Count of Esvar
“Malice” “Whoreson” Laroth—Illegitimate son of Nyraek Laroth
Lord Darius Laroth—Legitimate heir of Nyraek Laroth
Lord Takehiko Otako, “Endymion”—Illegitimate son of Nyraek Laroth
Vice Without Virtue
Lady Kimiko Otako, “Adversity”—Katashi’s twin sister
Avarice—Once employed on the Laroth estate
Lord Arata Toi, “Hope”—Vice
Vices—Spite, Conceit, Ire, Parsimony, Apostasy, Folly, Rancour, Enmity, Pride, and Envy
When gods walk, the ground trembles
When gods cry, the skies weep
When gods love, the world sings
When gods fight, empires fall
In darkness we waited. Silent. Tense. A group of imperial guards on the east bank of the Nuord River, watching for the flash of a lantern.
It was a starless night, and under layers of leather and mail, I carried my weight in sweat. Especially beneath my helmet where my hair stuck sodden to my head, but how else could one hide blonde curls? No one can know, Kin had said. You’re just another soldier.
Beside me, General Ryoji shifted his weight. He was little but an outline in the darkness, yet the blended scent of leather and sweat and cedar oil was impossible to mistake. There were traces of Katashi in that smell, and I wavered between wanting to move away and draw closer, fighting with my own instincts. My own memories.
The general shifted again, letting out a short huff of air. We had been waiting too long.
On my other side, a whisper warmed my ear. “Are you all right, my lady?”
Tili’s voice trembled. General Ryoji had cautioned against her involvement as he had cautioned against the entire mission, but tradition dictated the presence of another woman, so another woman there would be. Kin would risk no mistake.
I nodded. “You?”
Despite the darkness, I was sure she nodded back, but when I felt for her hand, I found it tightly clenched and shaking. I squeezed it and wondered how much more strongly an Empath could feel her fear.
For weeks, there had been nothing but bad news. First, we had lost Risian. Then Lotan. News no longer arrived from the north, and heavy losses stalked the heels of every victory like a plague we could not shake. We held Kogahaera, but only thanks to the Nuord River, its roar even now cutting the silence of an oppressive night.
“We need to move,” Kin said in a low rumble.
“There’s been no signal, Majesty,” General Ryoji returned.
“If they’re dead, they can’t signal.”
“If they’re dead, we should turn back.”
General Ryoji seemed to hold his breath, statue-still as he waited for a reply to such brazen honesty.
“It’s too late for that,” Kin said. “We go to Kuroshima without them.”
The general bowed, and again I wondered what Malice or Darius might read in his rigidity that I could not. More than fear? More than the ill ease of a man ordered to act against his better judgement?
“Ji. Tanner,” Ryoji said, speaking over my shoulder. “Stay with… her.”
“General,” I began. “I am armed and quite capable—”
“Yes, my lady, but they have their orders.”
Ji and Tanner filled the space he left behind. They were often with me, but though I knew their names and their faces, I trusted neither the way I had come to trust Ryoji—the ever-present sentinel who had saved me from the pit a lifetime ago, whose loyalty to Kin seemed to know no bounds.
We started to move, and Tili remained pressed to my side as we climbed the gentle curve of the bridge. At the peak, my sandal caught an uneven stone, but the press of soldiers was so close I could not fall, could only jog on as we descended into enemy territory—Otako territory. For years I had carried the name with pride, but tonight I would give it up to become Kin’s wife—Kin’s empress.
I had always dreamed of sitting on my father’s throne, always dreamed of ruling. Tonight that dream would come true, but it was a very different wedding to the one I had planned when I had asked Katashi to marry me. Fate had allowed me mere hours of such a joy—a joy so great the world had seemed to break beneath the strain of it.
Perhaps hearing my trembling breath, Tili pressed closer, but although she hampered my movement, I could not push her away. Her presence was the only comfort left.
We slowed as we gained the far bank. Ahead, light flickered through the dense shield of soldiers as it might through trees, glinting off buckles and patches of leather worn shiny with use.
Drawing weapons, they fanned out.
“No, not you, my lady,” General Ryoji said, once more appearing beside me.
“How can we maintain the ruse if I do not do my job?” I said.
“This is not your job, my lady, but keeping you safe is mine.”
Again a hint of Katashi’s scent—some oil perhaps, or just a cruel trick of memory—and though Ryoji could not have seen my expression in the darkness, I turned my face away. Ahead with his own escort, Emperor Kin led the way toward Kuroshima village.
It lay about a mile from the river, a gathering of small houses in the lee of the mountain. At this hour, they were shadowed and silent, the only light a lantern at the base of the climb that led to Kisia’s oldest shrine. There, two men in priest’s white were waiting beneath an arbour of becalmed leaves.
Leaving me with Ji and Tanner, General Ryoji hurried to join Kin, his hand as close to his sword as could be considered polite in the company of priests. I made to join them, but Tanner blocked my way with his arm. There was tension in every line of his body and his eyes darted, watching the soldiers move about the silent village. Without lanterns, the distant buildings melded into the trees. Dark. Lifeless.
Tili huddled closer still, as though I were a fire by which she could warm herself. Seconds dragged by, until at last General Ryoji made a sign, and Tanner lowered his arm. “My lady,” he said and bowed.
Tili and I joined them at the base of the mountain. Other soldiers gathered.
“What’s going on?” I hissed at General Ryoji. “What of our scouts?”
He glanced at the two priests. “It seems they never arrived.”
“But they were experienced soldiers.”
“Yes, my lady,” he said.
“They can’t have just gone missing.”
The general pulled at his bottom lip for a troubled instant. “No, my lady.”
“It’s quiet. Is the village empty?”
“All but, like we expected. The war is too close. Even at the base of the old mountain, no one is safe.”
“We are not alone here, General, the risk—”
“The risk of being attacked while retreating is just as high, my lady,” General Ryoji said, and I wondered if they were Kin’s words. “With none of the benefits of success. We go up.”
He moved on with a nod not a bow, maintaining the pretence that I was a mere soldier. I liked the informality, taking what small joys I could in being treated, for once, like just another man.
A flotilla of paper lanterns spread light through the group, and I took one, thinking of another time I had gathered in the dark with a group of men in imperial uniforms.
No, don’t think about Katashi.
I edged toward Kin. “It worries me that the scouts have not been seen,” I whispered. “We should leave.”
“No, we proceed as planned, a group on each branch of the stairs just as tradition dictates.”
“Are you sure it’s wise?”
He grimaced at me. “I am sure that anyone who wanted us dead could have killed us by now. Take what comfort from that as you will.”
“We have no choice. We have to do this right or risk losing all legitimacy.”
He was right, but I hated it. Hated the silence and the darkness, the still press of the air and the nervous looks of the soldiers. Hated to have found myself here at all.
No, don’t think about Katashi.
General Ryoji ordered half the men to remain behind and split the other half into two groups, one to accompany His Majesty up the right branch of the stairs, the other up the left branch with me, braving all one thousand four hundred and forty-four steps to the Kuroshima Shrine.
The forest into which we climbed was thick and dark, our winking lanterns the only stars, our steps and huffing breaths the only sounds. One thousand four hundred and forty-four stairs, one for every day the goddess Lunyia had waited for her husband. She, the goddess of loyalty and fortune, to whom all Kisians prayed upon their marriage. I counted them to give me something to think about other than what awaited me at the top.
At 210, General Ryoji stopped a few steps ahead. “Lim.”
I turned, swinging my lantern so fast the flame drew dangerously close to the paper. Behind me, the guard identified as Lim touched a hand to his sword.
“Run back down,” the general said. “Tell Rashil to send for reinforcements.”
“But General, there’s no sign of enemy movement, and His Majesty said we could not risk—”
“Send for reinforcements. There was nothing before the skirmish at Cherry Wood either,” Ryoji said. “Or when they hit us south of Risian. If the bastards want to play games with us, then this is the place they’ll choose. Send for reinforcements.”
Fast footsteps faded away down the steps, and I turned back to see the general’s features screwed into a scowl.
“You would think by your expression that you want to be attacked, General,” I said.
His eyes darted to my face and a rueful smile dawned. “Not exactly want, my lady, but I don’t like uncertainty.”
“Surely even if they know we’re here, they don’t know we are doing this. We were careful.”
The guards behind me stood silent to listen, and I winced at how desperately hopeful I sounded.
“Yes, my lady,” the general agreed. “But Lord Laroth has a habit of knowing things he ought not. I cannot say I liked the man, but only a fool would not respect his skill and take it into consideration.”
Darius and I had argued often, but never had I thought to find him truly my enemy. Even after what he had done, and the passage of weeks in which I had called him so, it still felt wrong.
A grimace crossed General Ryoji’s face. “Apologies, my lady, I did not—”
“You expressed no thought I have not had myself, General,” I said. “And if you’re right, we had better keep moving.”
The whole procession lurched on, climbing faster now as though our enemy were right behind us. I tried not to think about the burning in my thighs or the fate that awaited me at the top of the mountain, and instead stared all but unseeing at the novice leading the way. His white robe eddied, ghostlike, about his feet. White robe, white sash, and plain reed sandals. It was an impractical colour for all but those who spent their lives in pursuit of piety.
I had stopped counting the stairs, but my legs ached enough that we must surely have passed 1,444 and missed the shrine entirely. Absently, I wondered where the path would lead us, it seeming to own no end, when at last the novice turned his head to say, “We are almost there, my lady.”
I made no answer. My whole body ached. One thousand four hundred and forty-four steps from the village to the shrine had left me cursing my robe, my armour, my helmet, and the heavy soldier’s sandals that were like a weight upon each foot.
My stomach dropped as the last step vanished beneath me.
“Welcome to Kuroshima Shrine, my lady,” the novice said, halting beneath an arch of tangled branches hung with wild flowers. Beside me, General Ryoji’s steps crunched to a halt upon the path, light spilling onto his feet. Inside, Kin would be waiting. I had asked him to marry me, but he was not the man I had wanted to rule alongside.
Don’t think about Katashi.
Kuroshima Shrine was famous throughout Kisia, so I had expected it to be grand and imposing, not a cosy bird’s hollow. There was no gleaming woodwork or fine art, no thick beams or broad sweeping roofs, just a simple curved wall of interlocking iron branches rising to form a low, rounded ceiling hung with paper lanterns.
Kin stood in the opposite archway, watching a priest approach across the slate floor. Every fourth tile was painted a jarring red, and whether by accident or design, the man avoided them.
“Your Majesty, it is an honour to welcome you to Kuroshima,” he said, bowing very low before his emperor.
“Thank you, Father,” Kin returned, gesturing for the man to rise. “I have long wished to witness so great a part of our empire’s history, and what better occasion than upon the event of my marriage.”
The priest wore serenity like a blanket and bowed again. “Indeed, Your Majesty. We are honoured beyond words.”
Although Kin smiled, he did not speak again, leaving the priest to glance around in search of the bride. His gaze hung for a moment upon Tili, a slight frown between his brows at so curvaceous a soldier.
I pulled off my helmet. Sweat-dampened curls fell loose upon my brow, and the old priest stared, sucking in a breath before sinking into another low bow. “Lady Hana Otako, our shrine is humbled indeed.”
“You are too kind, Father,” I said, and with every eye on me, I hunted for something more to say. Darius, Mama Orde, and all my tutors had sought to instil in me the sort of grace and learning that would allow the uttering of pretty speeches, but until now I had only been representing myself. Now my words would reflect not only upon Emperor Kin but upon the whole of Kisia. I cleared my suddenly dry throat. “In truth, I feel there is little that could humble so old and so beautiful a shrine,” I said, the courtly words not even sounding like my own. “We are transient, but it endures. Is there somewhere I can make myself presentable, Father?”
The man’s eyes bulged, and he glanced at our novice guide. A silent heartbeat passed before he said, “Of course, my lady, follow me.”
Once again avoiding the red slates, he led me toward the opposite archway, my armour clinking with every step. I caught Kin’s eye as we passed, but though his lips smiled, his eyes did not. His attention, like General Ryoji’s, was elsewhere.
The priest led the way to a small pavilion off the main path. It had a simple reed floor and walls lined with spare robes, white sashes, prayer chains, and pouches of fresh incense. Its smell filled every breath with the taste of sandalwood.
Tili followed me inside. Frowning, the father was moved to speak, but I stopped him. “My maid, Father,” I said. “We could not be too careful.”
Tili removed her helmet and bowed to the old priest. “Father.”
His disapproval did not shift, but with a sharp nod, he left, ignoring Ji and Tanner as they took up silent vigil outside the door. There was urgency despite the calm night, and before the door closed, my sword belt and weapons hit the floor. Whatever other conventions I had persuaded Kin to set aside, I could not kneel before the Shrine Stone armed.
“Help me out of this,” I said, tugging at the soldier’s knot that held my crimson sash. It went first, followed by the leather tunic and its linen under-robe, gauntlets and breeches—every trapping of the common soldier had been made to size, but once more, tradition dictated I could not take my oath in it. Tili unrolled the ceremonial robe she had carried tied in a bundle, and though its beautiful silk was creased, being dishevelled was a small price to pay. No one watching our progress from the camp at Kogahaera would have reason to suspect Lady Hana made one of the party. They might recognise Emperor Kin, but what could be more natural than an Emperor making a pilgrimage to Kuroshima in a time of war?
I ran my fingers through my hair, and Tili helped me into my robe. We did not speak. There was little to say, and we had not been good at small talk of late.
A knock fell upon the door. “My lady?”
I had no mirror to be sure I was ready, but there was no time to do more. “Enter,” I said, running my hands down my creased robe.
The door slid to reveal the novice who had been our guide. “I’m sorry, my lady, but Father Hoto is anxious to begin.”
The young man stared directly at me as he spoke, not effacing his gaze as etiquette required.
My pulse quickened. “He sent you?”
“Yes, my lady, he is anxious to begin the ceremony.” Still he did not drop his gaze, and I hunted his face for some clue of what he was trying to tell me. No fear that I could see, no meaningful glance at my sword.
“Then I will of course come at once,” I said, and only then did he step aside to let me pass.
Back outside, the air was humid, the night quiet. I tried to make eye contact with Ji and Tanner as I passed, but neither was used to looking at me. All I could do was stride toward the main hollow, counting the steps behind me. Tanner. Ji. The novice. Tili at my side. No surprises, yet I was fretful with only stiff silk at my hip.
Light spilled from the main hollow of the shrine, and I strode through the narrow arch only to halt on the threshold, my heart thudding against my breastbone.
Conceit stood at the altar, a knife pressed to Father Hoto’s throat. Behind him stood a dozen soldiers in Pike black, hooded and anonymous, while Kin’s soldiers faced them across the red slate floor, hands tense upon their sword hilts.
“Why, Lady Hana, you have kept us waiting,” Conceit said, his pretty features and malicious smile a memory from another life. “How kind of you to finally join us.”
A grunt sounded behind me and Ji crumpled, his blood spraying over my feet. The novice pressed a bloodied knife to Tanner’s neck. “Don’t move,” he quavered, his white robe splattered with blood. “Don’t move or I’ll have to kill him too.”
He trembled, but the blade remained steady against Tanner’s throat.
“She’s thinking about moving,” Conceit said, holding every gaze. Kin’s soldiers hovered out of range like wary cats. “As you can see, your companions have not been welcoming, my lady. And to think I only came to give you this gift.”
He gestured to the altar. There lay a black sash where a white one ought to be. “It’s a more appropriate colour, don’t you think?”
No one moved. No one spoke. All eyes were on this man. “No? You don’t get it?” he said, when no one answered. “The sash of a whore instead of an innocent bride?”
“I’ll slit your slanderous accusations from your throat,” General Ryoji said.
The man clicked his tongue. “My, my, General Ryoji, how venomous you are toward your guests. But—” He nodded at Father Hoto. “You need him, don’t you? He’s the only one here qualified to perform a marriage ceremony.”
Conceit laughed suddenly and removed his knife from the priest’s throat. Father Hoto collapsed upon the stones, curled up like a child.
“Father Hoto.” The intruder knelt at the altar. “Would you do the honours?” He didn’t wait for a response but pursed his lips piously. “I, Conceit,” he said, mimicking a ceremony, “most trusted of the Vice Master, pray the gods never saddle me with such a whore for a wife. I would not wish my children to be born of such loose loins, smeared by the seed of so many men as they claw their way into this world.”
“Shut him up,” Kin ordered. “Now.”
Conceit seemed not to hear. “In the eyes of the gods,” he said, “I offer the Imperial Whore this black sash—”
An arrow leapt for the unguarded Vice and hit him full in the chest. But there was no satisfying crack of bone. No gush of blood. The arrow clattered uselessly off the wall as Conceit disappeared.
From across the altar, a new Conceit laughed. “I, Lady Hana Otako, the Imperial Whore,” the second Conceit continued in a high-pitched voice. “Cannot wait seven days to have my robe torn off. Take me now, commoner, give me your enormous—”
The second Conceit rolled as another arrow came at him.
“Ha! Now we’re playing.” He leapt to his feet. “You would kill a woman making her prayers?” He clicked his tongue reprovingly, and behind him, the small group of hooded Pikes drew their swords.
“Hold your ground,” Kin growled at his men.
“Is this how you treat every guest bearing wedding gifts?” Conceit asked as he drew the deadly sickle Malice gave to every Vice in his service. The man’s smile turned predatory.
“No,” Kin said. “This is how I treat foul-mouthed traitors. Cut him down!”
As one body, the imperial guards advanced. I had left my weapons with my armour, but I snatched up Ji’s sword and ran in on anger-fuelled steps.
“My lady, stay back!”
I shouldered the concerned guard out of the way. “Don’t you dare tell me I have no right to defend my own name!”
Dark figures swarmed. Someone shouted. Another screamed. I dodged a clumsy swing and charged on, looking for Conceit. He, a flash of blond amid the chaos. Curls of incense smoke framed his tragically beautiful face.
“Why, Lady Hana,” he said, arching high brows over dead eyes. “Or should I call you Captain Regent?”
“Shut your mouth or I’ll shut it for you,” I growled, jabbing at his gut.
Conceit danced out of the way, laughing. “I didn’t mean what I said, you know. I’d have you no matter how many men had loosened you up first.”
Anger took control and I thrust wildly. A lighter sword might have touched him, but I hadn’t the strength to send this heavy lump of steel through his chest.
“Dressing like a man doesn’t suit you,” he said. “And that sword makes you clumsy. Perhaps your beloved Kin doesn’t wish you well-armed. Here, have mine.”
He threw his sword up and caught it by the blade. All confidence, he held it out to me. “Call it a wedding gift.”
I swung at his outstretched arm, prepared to hit bone. But it was Conceit. Of course there was no resistance, no real flesh, and I fell off balance as the blade passed through him. He did not retaliate, just stood there with a hurt expression and one arm missing. “My lady, I was only being kind.”
I thrust my sword into his gut. I knew there would be nothing, that I was only fuelling my anger, but rage had me in its grasp. Conceit’s laughing face disappeared, yet my blade found flesh. Black sash. Black short robe. A Pike, his shocked cry like the wail of a bird.
The Pike dropped his sword, his slim hands fluttering in panic as he plucked at my sleeve. Beneath the hood his shadowed features looked youthful.
“I… I…” He gulped for breath, like a drowning man. Then a high-pitched moan and a gesture of despair that was all too feminine.
A woman. Dressed in black.
“Shit!” I looked into the dying whore’s face. “I’m so sorry! I—”
Blood oozed down her chin and bubbled in her mouth as she tried to speak and only managed to spit crimson.
- On Sale
- Aug 4, 2020
- Page Count
- 496 pages