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The Last Lies of Ardor Benn
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Life should ever point us to the Homeland, though each day is not without its mighty tribulations. Though we struggle in a line, the circle saves, and the sphere governs all.
—Wayfarist Voyage, vol. 3
That great red eye foretells with clarity, recalls with wisdom, and perceives the present as in one still moment.
—Ancient Agrodite poem
Ardor Benn stumbled on the hem of his sea-green Islehood robes. Well, wasn’t that befitting? He might have chuckled to himself, if there hadn’t been so many people watching.
The Char was as bustling as usual, though the day carried a chill uncommon to summer. A reminder that, although it was the Third Cycle, spring wasn’t a distant memory.
Still, Ard wasn’t cold. In fact, he probably would have been comfortable wearing nothing beneath his Islehood robes. But he’d learned pretty quickly that free-flying was frowned upon in the Mooring. And now things were awkward with Isless Shora, and Isle Ton couldn’t look him in the face, and he’d earned his second visit to Cove 1 for remediation from the Prime Isle… Anyway, today proved it was a lesson well learned, since Ard needed a belt beneath his robes to strap on his holsters.
There was a crowd waiting at Oriar’s Square—mostly working class Landers who’d caught wind of today’s showdown and wanted to see it unfold for themselves. They parted as Ard approached, a few holding up pendants of the Wayfarist anchor to show their support. Nice to know he had the blessing of the crowd, but he didn’t let it lull him into false security. If this went like last time, the crowd would just end up getting in the way.
It’ll go better than last time, Ard tried to convince himself, scanning the mossy flagstone pavers in the center of the square. He was supposed to stand on the one shaped like a tricorn hat. Really, Raek? All the stones were roughly triangular.
“I said, come alone,” Dalfa Rhed called, cutting through the row of onlookers. She was a wiry woman who barely reached Ard’s shoulder. One of her front teeth was missing, and she spit through the black hole of its absence.
“I am alone,” Ard reassured her.
Dalfa pointed at the throng surrounding them. There must have been fifty people already. “What’s all this?”
“Citizens of Beripent, enjoying a summer’s afternoon,” Ard answered. “You can’t have expected me to close the Char. I’m only a humble Isle.”
“Cut the slag,” she said. “You’re Ardor Benn. Criminal ruse artist.”
“Reformed,” Ard said. He wasn’t trying to hide his past. “Or at the very least, retired.”
This earned him a chuckle from the crowd. Little comments like that only helped to build the image he was developing. There was a reason Ard had a waiting list of people who wanted to see him for spiritual guidance at the Mooring. Holy Isle Ardor Benn was something of a novelty—a legendary criminal turned pious.
“I got your request to meet.” Ard held out his arms, the wide robe sleeves hanging like curtains. “What can I do for you?”
Instead of answering him directly, Dalfa turned to the crowd. “This man defiles the Islehood robes with his Settled lies! Five years ago, he gained access to my chateau in northern Strind, posing as a nobleman looking to expand his interests.”
“That’s a little vague,” Ard cut in. “What was I doing, exactly?”
Dalfa spit again, glaring at him. “It slips my memory.”
Ard sighed. She was too smart to confess to counterfeiting Ashings in front of a crowd. There might be Regulators observing the exchange from the peripheries.
“The point is,” Dalfa continued, “while I thought we were engaged in honest business, Ardor Benn was actually plotting to rob me!”
Ard could see that her punchline didn’t land with the impact she’d hoped. The crowd hardly seemed surprised. Most of them had probably read about worse in the official Letters of Apology that Ardor Benn had written after the queen had pardoned him.
It was by no means a complete summary of his decade of rusing. Many of his targets had been other criminals who Ard had decided would rather not be apologized to, for fear of drawing the Reggies’ attention. Really, he was doing them a favor by keeping quiet.
But he’d worked hard on the letters he had written, choosing words that technically apologized for his crimes, but never for his cleverness in committing them.
“He left my chateau,” continued Dalfa in what seemed to be a more calculated attempt to shock the onlookers, “went directly to the public treasury, and withdrew a thousand Ashings in my name!”
This did earn a reaction. Because, well, a thousand Ashings. That sum was far more than these citizens would see in a year.
“Don’t let it shake your trust in the public treasuries,” Ard assured the throng. “A withdrawal requires all kinds of paperwork, two signatures authenticated against the ones in the treasury’s books, a wax seal with a notary’s signet stamp…”
“Then how’d you do it?” someone called from the crowd.
Ard scratched his head. “I don’t recall. Dalfa?”
Her face was twisted into an ugly sneer, and he knew he’d pushed her too far to admit it now.
“Oh, that’s right!” Ard said in mock recollection. “You signed the paperwork and had a notary present for the seal—”
“I thought I was signing something else,” Dalfa yelled.
Ard smiled at the onlookers. “And that, my friends, is why it’s always important to read the fine scribing.”
The cocking sound of a Slagstone gun hammer returned Ard’s attention to Dalfa. She had a Roller leveled at his chest, not a drib of amusement on her face. Ard, too, felt suddenly less amused. The public setting was supposed to avoid all this threatening and gun-pointing.
Ard held up his hands, a somber look on his face and his tone to match. “You can read my apology in the official letter I addressed to you,” he said slowly. He certainly wasn’t going to apologize again.
“I don’t care about your apology,” Dalfa said, waving the Roller. The wiser citizens in the crowd were repositioning themselves to avoid the line of fire. “I want my Ashings back.”
“I paid you in full,” Ard said. Sparks, this was shaping up to be just like last time. That was what happened when old enemies learned of his official pardon. The little rats were hungry to exploit the fact that the legendary Ardor Benn had gone clean.
“I paid you all back,” he insisted. Well, everyone mentioned in the Letters of Apology, at least. “Do you really think the Islehood would let someone with criminal debts join their—”
“You’re not part of the Islehood!” Dalfa bellowed. “You’re a ruse artist. And this”—she gestured at his holy attire—“is nothing but an elaborate ruse for reasons only Homeland knows.”
“Come on, Dalfa. Have a little faith.” He might still be able to diffuse the situation. “You know my old reputation. I was a busy criminal. Would I really sit in the Mooring for over a year with nothing to show for it?”
“I know you to be patient, too,” she said, not lowering the gun, “if the payout is big enough.”
“Are you aware of my agreement with Her Majesty?” Ard asked. It would be good for the people to hear it, too.
“Queen Abeth Agaul employed you—a known criminal—to find her missing son and heir to the crown,” Dalfa said.
“Which I did,” answered Ard. Never mind that the poor lad had promptly been shot on his brand-new throne.
“Whatever deal she offered you after that was clearly swayed by Her Majesty’s feelings of gratitude for what you’d done.”
“Questioning our crusader monarch is grounds for treason,” Ard said. “Queen Abeth has accomplished more good in two years than many kings and queens do in a lifetime.”
The crowd murmured its approval. Queen Abeth had always been well loved, even as an expatriate of Termain’s Archkingdom. She was the woman who seemed to have endured it all—the assassination of her husband and son, the exiling from a kingdom she had been groomed to rule, her own supposed assassination in the streets of Beripent. Abeth Ostel Agaul had risen through it all.
Ard hadn’t been one bit surprised when the new Prime Isle had decided to instate her as a crusader monarch. Like King Pethredote had been, Abeth was a placeholder ruler, not allowed to marry or produce an heir, working closely with the Prime Isle to establish stability across the islands until a decision could be reached about a new ruling bloodline.
“As payment for my services,” Ard explained, “the good queen pardoned my crimes on the condition that I don’t commit another. I made my apologies, paid my restitutions… Why would I jeopardize this arrangement just to slight you?”
“And if the pardoning wasn’t enough,” said Dalfa, “I heard the queen paid you a pretty Ashing, to boot.”
It was true. And Dalfa Rhed was the third person to try to take advantage of this. Never mind that Ard had already paid her back. Now that he was wealthy and lawful, it gave her the perfect opportunity to leverage his new reputation for more Ashings.
“So how about you do the right thing?” Dalfa said. “Prove your honesty to these people and pay up.” She finally holstered her gun, probably realizing how much it looked like she was threatening him.
“I’d be happy to produce proof of my payment,” Ard said. “The receipts are in my cubby at the Mooring.”
They were actually under his bed in his apartment in the Northern Quarter. He didn’t keep anything of true value in his Mooring cubby. Too many Holy Isles disagreed with his admittance into the Islehood. There was no telling what lengths they’d take to get him expelled.
“Receipts that you could easily forge or falsify,” Dalfa said. “As you’ve already proven.”
Ard shrugged. “Well, I’m not paying you twice. If you’re determined to investigate this further, perhaps you should contact a private inspector. I’d happily refer you to one I’ve used in the past…”
“Anyone will do the right thing if a Regulator is twisting their arm,” said Dalfa. “But this is a matter of character.”
“Yours, or mine?” Ard asked.
Half a dozen fellows suddenly appeared through the crowd, taking up positions behind Dalfa Rhed. Had they been there a moment ago? Surely, Ard would have noticed such ugly-looking sons of guns. They seemed happy to show off the Rollers on their hips, and one went so far as to crack his beefy knuckles.
“Hey, now.” Ard held out his hands. “I know northern Strind is still a bit of a wild frontier, but you’re in Beripent now. We take our laws seriously.”
“We know the laws,” said Dalfa. “And it’s well within our rights to haul a suspicious character to the nearest Reggie Outpost.”
That threat was barely even veiled. He wouldn’t make it to the Outpost. Once Dalfa’s thugs had him away from the crowd, it would be lights-out for good.
“Suspicious character?” Ard glanced down at the flagstone pavers. Aha! That one looked a bit like a tricorn hat. He took a large step sideways, positioning himself in the middle of the flat stone with his feet at shoulder width, knees slightly bent.
“I don’t believe it’s lawful for a Holy Isle to carry guns concealed beneath his robes,” said Dalfa, pointing at his midsection.
“Who says I’m wearing anything under this?” Ard slipped his hand into the pocket of his robes, fingers wrapping around a cool glass vial.
“Sparks, I hope I don’t find out,” she answered. “I’ll let the Regulators sort that out once we get you to the Outpost.” Dalfa raised her hands and the six muscled men lumbered forward.
Ard dropped to his knee on the paver, pulling his fist from his pocket and smashing the vial of Ignition Grit against the flat rock beneath him. The chip of Slagstone inside the vial sparked on impact, consuming the green liquid solution in a short-lived detonation cloud.
The Ignition Grit did its job as calculated. The brief cloud detonated the loose Void Grit that Raek had placed beneath the triangular paver. The result was a rush of wind that propelled the flat rock straight into the air like a flying platform. There was only one problem.
Ardor Benn was kneeling on the wrong stone.
He fell sideways, bits of loose rock and soil pelting him in the face as the stone paver in front of him soared up. He cursed as his ride went skyward without him, but the sudden eruption had still been enough to knock back the goons and disperse the crowd of innocent citizens.
Ard’s original overwrought escape plan was shot. He was supposed to have ridden the paver into the sky, grabbing a thick rope that Raek had strung between two treetops directly overhead. He could have hung there for a moment like fresh laundry on a line, before cutting the rope so he could swing out of Oriar’s Square like a swashbuckler.
Well, now it was time to improvise.
Ard sprang to his feet, yanking up the front of his robes unceremoniously and drawing his twin Rollers. The Prime Isle would give him another reprimand for this, but it wouldn’t be serious. Ard knew Olstad Trable secretly enjoyed having a celebrity in the Islehood.
The nearest thug lunged at him, a knife in one hand and a Singler in the other. Ard baited him forward. One step. Two steps. Okay, that was far enough. This meathead clearly didn’t spend much time thinking, since he’d forgotten one of the world’s most basic truths—Things that go up typically come down.
The flat paver stone took him straight over the head with a crunching sound that made Ard’s stomach turn. How was that for a tricorn hat? Oh, things were as bad as they could get now, with a dead man between him and Dalfa. One of the other men cracked off a shot, but the ball went wide. Retreating across the Square, Ard shot twice in response. He intentionally aimed low, letting the Roller balls chip the stone ground with hopes of deterring his enemies from chasing. He really didn’t want to shoot anyone. Prime Isle Trable would have a hard time justifying that.
Flames! His escape route was cut off by the sudden arrival of two more thugs—women who were clearly on Dalfa Rhed’s side. If he wanted to get to an open pathway out of Oriar’s Square, he’d have to sprint through a maelstrom of Roller balls.
Ard’s glance turned to the ruins of the Old Palace Steps. Just over four years ago, he’d saved all of humankind on those steps. Maybe they’d show him some kindness now.
He leapt the chain that cordoned off the historic site. His robe caught and he fell flat on his face, another gun ball missing him, perhaps thanks to his clumsiness. Maybe these robes were good for something!
He scampered forward, getting his feet under him as he ascended the stone steps. Was this the stair where he’d become a Paladin Visitant, crouched in shadow while Grotenisk the Destroyer breathed centuries-old fire to fertilize the bull dragon egg?
There wasn’t much time for sentimentality now. Ard had no plan. He was simply trying to gain the high ground. That was always the tactical advantage, right?
Whatever he was doing, it seemed to be working. Halfway up the steps, his enemies stopped shooting at him. Dalfa Rhed was reckless to open fire in the Char, but her team wasn’t foolish enough to put divots into a historical monument like the Old Palace Steps.
Ard was far from safe, though. One of the women and two of the men were stepping over the cordon chain, thin swords brandished. If only there was some way off this ruined stairway to nowhere…
Almost like a gift from the Homeland, Ard saw a rope dangling from the tall oak that framed the steps to the right. Glancing up, he saw that it was Raek’s original escape rope, conveniently severed so the cut end draped across the crumbling landing at the top of the stairs.
Perfect! A way out, and still a chance to look undeniably heroic. Ard holstered both Rollers and sprinted the final steps, catching the limp rope in both hands and leaping from the landing. He swung in a wide arc, his momentum and the significant length of his rope looping him around the side of the Old Palace Steps.
He was spinning in a madly dizzying fashion, but he still managed to glimpse the looks on the faces of his pursuers. They stared in obvious awe at his reckless acrobatics, swords gripped loosely.
Now, if only he knew how to get down.
Just then, the knot in the tree must have failed, dropping him to the stone pavers just yards from Dalfa. He didn’t land gracefully, his Islehood robes tearing as he rolled painfully across the ground. Dalfa opened fire, but the ball from her Roller pinged harmlessly off a transparent Barrier cloud that had suddenly formed between them.
A rough hand seized Ard by the back of the neck and yanked him to his feet.
“Why can’t you just escape like a normal person?” Raekon Dorrel asked, pointing his crossbow into the Square and sending a bolt through the leg of Dalfa’s nearest man.
“How do normal people escape?” Ard asked, starting down the open path through the Char.
“On foot,” Raek replied, reloading as he followed. “Not swinging across Oriar’s Square like a windblown sailor.”
“That was improvising,” Ard said. “I was supposed to fly up on that paver.”
“See? Not normal.”
“Tricorn hat?” Ard spit. “That stone looked more like a croissant.”
“I didn’t think of a croissant,” said Raek. “That’s good.”
“Not helpful now.” Ard glanced over his shoulder to see that Dalfa and her thugs had not been slowed by Raek’s Barrier cloud. Seven of them. Following at a dead sprint.
“If you’re going to be so picky about the shape of the rock, you should have come with me when I was setting things up last night,” Raek said.
“I had a man in my Cove pouring his heart out,” said Ard. “I couldn’t ask him to wrap it up so I could set up for tomorrow’s showdown. I trusted you to take care of it.”
“Well, I had my doubts about the flying-paver-plan from the beginning,” Raek said. “Running was always a better idea.”
Although winded from his sprint, Ard found enough breath to scoff. “Not nearly exciting enough. Cowards run. Reformed-ruse-artists-turned-Holy-Isles fly out of a conflict on a flat rock.”
“Sometimes I wonder if you actually hear the words that come out of your mouth.”
“Your rope didn’t hold, by the way,” said Ard. “I’m questioning your knots.”
“The rope didn’t hold because I untied it when I saw you flailing helplessly ten feet above the ground,” said Raek.
“I mean before that,” Ard said. “The other end must’ve come untied because I found it draped across the landing at the top of the steps.”
“Yeah,” Raek said. “You’re welcome for that, too.”
Ard slowed, pointing ahead. The path was clear of citizens—they knew how to scurry when trouble erupted in the Char—but a handful of blue uniformed Regulators were making directly for them. “About time they showed up!”
At his side, Raek cursed. “Since when are we happy to see Reggies coming toward us?”
“Dalfa started this trouble,” Ard said. “She and her crew won’t stick around to answer questions.” He glanced back. “See?” Sure enough, their enemies were darting off the path into the lush foliage of the Char.
When he turned back, Raek had moved over to one of the historical ruins on the side of the pathway. It was one of the better-preserved structures from Old Beripent. There was a crumbled second story, but the first floor looked well intact.
“Lose the robe!” Raek called as he ripped open the mossy wooden door of the ruined building.
“What?” Ard cried.
“Trust me,” said Raek. “You’re going to want deniability.”
Ard grimaced. Dalfa hadn’t made up the law about concealing firearms beneath an Islehood robe. He stepped off the path and pulled the dirty sea-green fabric over his head. Ditching it under some ferns, he stepped back onto the path, heart pounding to see how close the Reggies were.
“Come on!” Raek shouted, peeking his head out from the doorway of the ruins. It seemed like a terrible idea to corner themselves in a run-down building while the Regulators could clearly see them enter. But he couldn’t leave Raek.
Sprinting across the path, Ard ducked through the doorway and his partner slammed the old wooden door shut.
“Trespassing on historic ruins in the Char is punishable with jail time, and a fine,” Ard hissed through the sudden darkness. The building was windowless, but sunshine leaked through the worn doorframe, casting thin lines of light filled with dancing particles of dust.
“Tell that to the guy who just jumped off the Old Palace Steps.” Raek took a Grit pot from his belt and threw it against the door. The Slagstone sparked when the clay shattered and a dome of Barrier Grit effectively sealed off the door.
“This is a bad idea.” Ard glanced around. The room was bigger than he’d expected. Maybe fifty feet long, but only half as wide. “I could have talked my way out of it. We’re the good guys now. We’ve got nothing to hide.”
Now it was Raek’s turn to scoff. “I’m literally hiding so much in my pack right now,” he said, shrugging out of it.
Ard held his breath, then decided to ask it. “Heg?” He knew his friend had been using it again—detonating Compounded Health Grit directly into that pipe in his chest. Since their confrontation on Pekal two years ago, Ard couldn’t count how many times his friend had gone clean.
Or how many times he’d relapsed.
“I’ve got vials of liquid Grit in here that the Greater Chain doesn’t even know exists,” Raek said, artfully dodging the question.
The rickety wooden door thundered under the pounding of fists. “Open up!” cried a Regulator’s voice. “In the name of the crusader monarch! Open this door at once and surrender yourselves!”
“They’re just going to blow their way in,” Ard whispered.
Raek shook his head. “And destroy one of the Char’s historic buildings?”
Ard tilted his head to catch a woman’s voice making a report. “We’ve swept the building, sir. This door is the only way in or out.”
“Very well,” came the reply. “They’re not going anywhere. We’ll station ourselves here and starve them out if we have to.”
Ard turned to Raek, exhaling sharply. “Bury your pack,” he whispered. “I’ll go out there and—”
“One crime,” Raek cut him off. “All they have to do is find us guilty of one crime.”
Ard understood the stakes. If he violated the terms of agreement with Queen Abeth, she would revoke the pardon and it would be back to his old lifestyle.
“We can’t risk it yet,” Raek said. “Not until you get what we need from the Islehood.”
Right. Finding out where the Islehood stored its growing collection of dragon shell fragments was the entire point of this plan. With the little bull dragon finally mature enough to fertilize the eggs, there had been a huge influx of shell. In keeping with tradition, the Islehood had complete control over it, safeguarding the broken fragments until they could be processed into Visitant Grit.
It actually hadn’t been hard to figure out where the Islehood was storing it. Ard had learned the location two cycles ago.
The hard part was deciding not to tell Raek.
“And when we do lose the queen’s pardon—hopefully soon,” Raek went on, “I expect to be doing something a lot more impressive than trespassing.”
“How do we get out of here, then?” Ard whispered. “They said they could starve us out. And I’m already hungry!”
“Relax.” Raek dug into his pack. “We don’t have to go out the door.”
“Blast Grit?” Ard said hesitantly. “You’re going to blow a hole in the wall—”
“That could bring the whole place down on our heads,” Raek cut him off, holding up a pair of thick, elbow-length gloves. A grin split his scarred face. “I think it’s time to give these another try.”
“The gauntlets. Are you serious?” Ard retorted. “Didn’t you break every one of your fingers last time?”
“Only nine,” said Raek. “My left pinky was spared. And anyway, I’ve made some improvements.” He pulled another Grit pot from his belt and tossed it to Ard. “Detonate this against the far wall, will you?”
Ard glanced at the clay ball, a white spot painted on one side. “What is it?”
“Silence Grit,” Raek replied, tugging on one of the bulky gauntlets.
Ard crossed to the back of the long room and pitched the pot against the stone wall. He was standing within the radius when the cloud formed and everything went absolutely silent. He breathed in the quiet for a brief moment, trying to feel the Urgings from the Homeland that he’d spent the last year preaching about.
There was nothing. He felt no guidance beyond the cleverness of his own intellect. And he had felt nothing since the night of Gloristar’s marvelous transfiguration. She had claimed to be the Homeland. And if that were true, perhaps it explained why Ard had felt nothing since. He had seen the Homeland with his own eyes. He had seen her fall from the Old Post Lighthouse, swallowed into the depths of the sea.
And in the two years since her death, he had felt no Urgings.
Ard turned to find Raek fully geared up. In each gloved hand he held an iron rod about a foot long. Both ends of the rods had been flattened like the head of a nail.
“That’s your improvement?” Ard asked, stepping out of the Silence cloud.
“And I sewed the rods to the palms of the gloves so they won’t slip,” he said out of the corner of his mouth. The other side of his lips were busy clenching two small blue vials like cigars. As Ard watched, Raek carefully spit a vial into each of his palms, the glass clinking as it rested against the iron bars.
- "Whitesides sticks the landing in his conclusion to the Kingdom of Grit trilogy … Whitesides excels at balancing detailed worldbuilding and page-turning plot, sprinkling in plenty of humor along the way. This is a worthy finale to the series, and fans will be eager to see what he does next."—Publishers Weekly
- “It’s a fun read with plenty of adventure, danger, and clever solutions to problems; ultimately a satisfying, if surprisingly tidy, end to the career of a self-proclaimed legendary criminal.”—Booklist
- "Mission Impossible, but with magic, dragons, and a series of heists that go from stealing a crown to saving the world. A fun, terrific read I heartily recommend."—David Dalglish, author of A Dance of Cloaks, on The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn
- "Ardor is a rogue with a heart of gold and his team is incredibly fun to follow, but we also love this one of the originality of its heist."—B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog on The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn
- "If you enjoy The Lies of Locke Lamora . . . then I can confidently predict that The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn is the book for you . . . Highly recommended."—The Eloquent Page on The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn
- "I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is easily the best fantasy-heist book I have read in years!"—A Fantastical Librarian on The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn
- "The world of Ardor Benn is fascinating, deep, and well written ... This is a very impressive debut and Tyler Whitesides is clearly a talented writer with a lot of potential."—The Quill to Live on The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn
- "The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn delivers. From start to finish this is an amazing read."—The Book Plank on The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn
- "A cracking introduction to a new fantasy world that demands further exploration."—SFX on The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn
- "Commendable adult fantasy debut . . . fun, entertaining and has a unique magic system . . . pretty darn cool."—Booknest on The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn
- On Sale
- Dec 1, 2020
- Page Count
- 672 pages