UPDATE: THE ENTIRE STORY IS UNLOCKED! I’ve left the riddle and the earlier instructions below, for those who are curious about the whole hunt. You can see how the riddle was broken by scrolling down to the bottom of the comments. The story itself is just below the hunt instructions. Thanks so much to everyone who took part. Enjoy!
Disregard everything below the line of asterisks — I’ve left the old instructions there on the off-chance that one of these books is still in a bookstore waiting to be found. I think, however, that all but one have been found or are lost forever, which brings us to… the final copy, the final riddle, and the end of the story. It’s simple. Solve the riddle below. Find the last book (The Last Abbot, copy 1/20), get in touch with me, and I’ll open up the final part of the story. No spoilers, but the location where it’s hidden is worthy of a fantasy novel. Bring a camera and some friends when you go looking. Happy hunting!
THE FINAL RIDDLE
A whole world, older than memory, younger than old women, old men,
Vast as the ocean, small enough to hold in a hand,
A gift of the daughter of the watchers of women and men,
A gift of Parnassus, spread in dozens of tongues,
It whispers to us:
Your name is not your name.
You can’t escape.
The shadow is the self.
99 3 6 21 9 10 26 22.
21 10 24 68 4 26 5 18 9 3 1 75 22 63 24 1 1 3 26 23 7 43 6 22 26 18 26 1 3 22 26 43 7 67 3 5 26 26 99 10 37 23 16 9 7 23 3 5 75 22 63 63 4 5 67 7 5 1 21 22.
Inside a copy of The Emperor’s Blades marked with this:
Tweet (@brianstaveley), email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or otherwise contact me with a photo of the print, and you will unlock, right here and for all to see, a portion of this:
THE LAST ABBOT OF ASHK’LAN
(Please note: this story contains serious spoilers for The Emperor’s Blades.)
Monks, Akiil concluded grimly as he crouched in the rafters of the burning kitchen, made even worse fighters than they did cooks. The attack on the monastery had barely begun – the first Aedolians flooded into the dormitory not long after sunset – and already everyone he knew seemed to be either dead or in the process of dying. That the Shin tended to die quietly, submitting to the god with something you might call monastic reserve, only made it worse. Akiil didn’t plan on dying, not yet, but if death came for him, he planned to go kicking and punching, cursing and biting, making as much fucking noise as possible.
He’d passed a dozen corpses between the dormitory and the refectory, then another five in the short dash from the refectory to the small kitchen behind. The stone building seemed to promise a measure of shelter, at least until the most direct path to the cliffs was clear. Then he heard the Aedolians approaching – bellowed orders, feet crunching over gravel, steel scraping against steel. Akiil managed to scramble into the rafters just before they burst through the door – a bad decision, as it turned out, given that the bastards had come to set the building ablaze.
Three of them lumbered off as soon as the fire started licking up the wooden cupboards and over the wooden countertops. Three gone, which meant that one was still there, standing just inside the door, holding his naked blade at the ready. Akiil watched the flames reflected in the blade’s steel, so bright the sword itself might have caught fire. It wasn’t long before the kitchen was burning in earnest. He could feel the heat on his face, on his bare hands, even through his woolen robe. He closed his eyes, slowed his breath, calmed his pulse.
The Shin weren’t fighters – that was true enough – but say this for them: some of the things you learned from those strange, endless, irritating exercises were handy in a pinch. If Akiil had been able to summon the same calm when he was a young thief back in the Perfumed Quarter, he might never have been caught, never branded. Which would have meant he never would have left Annur or joined the Shin. Never learned to be calm. It was a strange circle, the kind of puzzle to which he might have devoted more thought were he not stuck in the rafters of a burning building.
Balancing on his palms and the balls of his feet, he crawled a few feet along the narrow beam, trying to put more space between himself and the growing fire, trying not to draw the soldier’s attention, praying to a variety of gods that the miserable, overarmored son of a bitch would get the holy fuck out already so Akiil himself could come down and be gone before the entire ‘Kent-kissing kitchen collapsed into a pile of rubble.
The gods – perhaps because of the quantity of curses woven into the prayer – ignored him.
The Annurians were supposed to be escorts. They were supposed to be escorting Kaden’s royal buttocks back to Annur to perch on the newly vacated throne. And they weren’t just any soldiers; these were Aedolians, the fabled guard of the Emperor himself, men who, according to the stories, were tireless, fearless, and incorruptible.
So much, Akiil thought, for the stories.
The armored men had proven tireless enough, but their recent behavior cast some serious doubt on their incorruptibility. Escorting, as the sun slipped below the horizon, had turned surprisingly quickly into murdering.
Of course, no one walked the length of Vash in full armor just to kill a bunch of monks. The Shin didn’t have anything, they didn’t know anything, and the Blank God knew they didn’t do anything. No – all the killing, all the burning, all the destroying of a perfectly good if somewhat dilapidated monastery – it was about Kaden. Kaden, who excelled at the Shin disciplines, but didn’t know shit about escaping from armed, armored, angry men. Kaden, who, if he wasn’t already dead, would be in acute need of some significant rescuing. Kaden, Akiil’s only real friend.
His first thought when he got clear of the dormitory had been to go straight to the huge pavilion in the center of the monastery, the one the Aedolians had erected for Kaden when they were still playing nice and using phrases like “orderly succession”. The night, however, had become very disordered very quickly, and the pavilion was ablaze by the time Akiil got to it. Worse, it was surrounded by heavily armed soldiers.
So the tent was a trap – straightforward enough. Kaden might be inside, but there was no way Akiil could get at him. Not there, not now. Grief slid inside him like a cold blade. He pulled it out, tossed it away.
This, too, the Shin had taught him, but in fact, the lesson was older, one of the most basic rules he’d learned back in the Perfumed Quarter: Never help. Akiil had amended the maxim slightly over the years, putting his own ethical stamp on the ancient saying: Only help when it won’t get you killed or seriously fucked up.
As it turned out, the chaos engulfing Ashk’lan looked extremely likely to get him killed or seriously fucked up. He wanted to go after Kaden – maybe wanted was the wrong word – but aside from the pavilion, Akiil had no idea where to even start looking. If he was going to have a chance of helping – Kaden, or any of the other monks – he had to make it through the night.
That thought had led him back to another precept from a childhood among thieves, highwaymen, and whores: First, survive. Any other shit could be sorted out later, but not if you were dead. The dead were notoriously bad at sorting shit out.That single commandment had saved Akiil hundreds of times in the Perfumed Quarter, but eight years of soft living among the monks had made him stupid. Stupid and slow.
The problem was simple: he’d come to believe that he was actually safe here. The monks would hit him, even beat him bloody for certain lapses, but the monks weren’t going to kill him. In their strange, irritating way, they actually thought that all the hitting and running would end up helping him. Even more strange, even more irritating, was the realization that they were right.
As a child on the streets of Annur, Akiil had been little more than a quick, grimy creature, tendon and bone held together by fear, and anger, and confusion. The past was a hard thing to let go of, a hard thing to escape, and Akiil enjoyed pretending that he missed the Quarter, missed the camaraderie of cutthroats and thieves, rapists and thugs. When he was honest with himself, however, when he sat alone on Ashk’lan’s broad ledges watching the sun set over the steppe, he could admit, if only silently, that he had hated that fucking city. He’d hated the life he lived there. He’d hated himself.
It had been Scial Nin, the abbot of Ashk’lan himself, who had pointed that out.
“It is not the sitting that makes you angry,” the abbot had once observed after Akiil refused to remain still as instructed.
Akiil was barely ten at the time, angry and impatient. When he opened his mouth to make some sort of crack, Nin hit him. It was a casual blow, openhanded, instructive.
“Sitting is just sitting,” the abbot went on, shrugging.
“I hate it,” Akiil had snarled, scrubbing his face with a hand.
The abbot shook his head. “No one hates sitting. What you see when you sit, that is what you hate.”
Again Akiil started to respond. Scial Nin hit him again.
The monastery was boring. The monks were single-minded. The food was terrible. But the place was also true, and clean, and honest. It was safe. That had been the illusion, anyway, an illusion the flood of murderous Aedolians were doing their best to shatter. It was hard to feel safe in the burning rafters of a crumbling building. Hard to feel safe suspended above a well-armed, well-trained man with blood already bright on his blade.
Akiil considered his options, found them extremely disappointing, then considered them again, hoping he’d missed something the first time around. He could fight the big bastard, try to kill him. The problem was, he’d never killed anyone before, not if you didn’t count Renk the Rat, whom he’d half-strangled in a fit of scrambling terror, then shoved into a Canal. He never found out if the Rat had clawed his way out. Probably. It hardly mattered. Renk had been a kid, no older than Akiil himself, maybe seven or eight at the time. The Aedolian below wore full armor – you couldn’t even see his face behind the helm – and he carried a sword as long as his arm. Akiil had a robe and a short belt knife. Fighting was unlikely to end well.
Of course, the soldier had yet to look up. The kitchen was small, and it was on fire. He’d done his job. With a little luck, he’d move on. Unfortunately, whatever god was doling out the luck seemed to have skipped over the monks on this particular night, and the Aedolian held stubbornly to his post by the door, scanning the cupboards on the far side of the room, unwilling to step in further into the growing inferno, but clearly reluctant to leave. Probably he thought some miserable monk was cowering in the cupboards or behind the wide counters. Probably he considered it his charge to hold the doorway, his duty to make sure no monks emerged alive.
Duty, Akiil thought, his mind running through well-worn channels of the Shin aphorism, is a deception. Regrettably, it looked like a deception that was about to get him killed.
Then, as though to underscore the somewhat dispiriting metaphysical point that even a grim situation could always get grimmer, another soldier burst into the kitchen, his sword also at the ready. It seemed an unnecessary level of vigilance for the killing of unarmed monks, but something had the man on edge. He was huffing through his visor, waving his free arm as though to fend off a nest of hornets.
“Kelt!” he shouted.
Kelt, Akiil thought, glancing over again at the first Aedolian. His Aedolian.
The man turned. “I thought I saw one of them come in here,” Kelt said.
Akiil grimaced. So that was why the bastard had proven so tenacious.
“You’re needed out there!” the other soldier spat. “They’ve got a fighter. At least one.”
Kelt waved the man away. “So kill him. My charge is to clear this sector. I won’t let Micijah Ut hear that I did otherwise.”
A fighter? It was an interesting conversation, one that would have been even more interesting if Akiil’s feet weren’t about to catch fire. He inched along the beam, silently cursing his robe as it snagged on the unfinished pine. Maybe a few of the monks had finally found some backbone. Maybe there was still some will in them, despite the daily desire to escape the self. Maybe now that it came right down to it, some of them had decided they might want to defend those selves. It was one thing, after all, to blow out the mind’s flame, quite another to have it splattered in bloody gobbets all over a rough stone wall.
Someone else would have to sort out the theological nuance. Akiil was more focused on whether or not Kelt, ‘Shael take his unswerving devotion to his orders, could be persuaded to get out of the kitchen before it collapsed.
Kelt, as it turned out, was not to be persuaded.
“Go,” he said. “I’ll follow shortly, as soon as this room is secure.”
The other Aedolian cursed. “It’s all going to shit out there. I told you, they’ve got this fighter.”
“All the more reason,” Kelt replied implacably, “to stick to the plan.” He didn’t have a soldier’s voice. No cursing and growling. No rough barking. He sounded like a scribe, like he was discussing some minor issue of bookkeeping. “This won’t take long.”
The other soldier swore again, hesitated, then charged back out into the night.
In the short space of the conversation, the fire had gnawed through half the beam on which Akiil perched. He could feel it trembling now, shifting with the shifting walls. No improvement there.
On the other hand, the brief exchange had given him the rudiments of a plan, the tools necessary to implement it. He crept forward another few feet, trying to gauge the distance to the Aedolian, to figure the man’s most likely passage over the floor below. Maybe plan was too ambitious a word, he admitted silently. Still, the Shin set aside ambition when they joined the monastery. It was, at least, a chance, and Akiil wasn’t in a position to be turning down chances. He glanced around the room, considered the surfaces and angles, then threw his voice into the far corner, behind the row of cupboards.
It was a trick he had learned back in Annur – a matter of the stomach and lungs, rather than the mouth itself – and it had saved him a dozen times before. Plenty of people thought the ability was some sort of kenning, that the men and women who could do it were leaches. That was just ignorance and stupidity, but ignorance and stupidity could kill you – were likely to, in Akiil’s experience – and so he’d been judicious and discrete when it came to the throwing of voices. It was a good trick in a pinch, when you wanted someone to look the other way, when you needed just that extra heartbeat to escape. This time he needed a little bit more.
“Please,” he cried, tossing the sound. “I can’t breathe in here! It’s hot.”
He couldn’t see the soldier’s face beneath his helm, but the wolfish smile wasn’t hard to imagine. The Aedolian took a step forward.
“Come out,” Kelt said. “All those asking for clemency and submitting to Intarra’s light will be spared.”
Oh, will they? Akiil thought, slipping the simple knife from the sheath at his belt. It felt small against his sweating palm. Silently, he intoned the Shin mantra – Fear is blindness. Calmness, sight – said it three times, until his heart beat steadily once more.
“Swear it,” he pleaded finally, throwing his voice again. He muffled the words, roughened them around the edges, as though they were emerging from inside the heavy pine cupboards.
The Aedolian took another step. “I swear,” he said without hesitation.
Akiil waited a moment, then cried out as though in terror. “I can’t! I’m stuck. Help me!”
The soldier darted an eye at the flames licking up the walls. “The fire’s coming for you. Best hurry.”
“I can’t!” Akiil pleaded. “Please, help. I know where the abbot is going! I know where they’re planning to regroup.”
It was pure horseshit, of course. Regrouping was something soldiers did on battlefields, something gangs of thieves did in slums and taverns. In order to think you might need to regroup you had to think you might get fucked, a notion that had evidently never occurred to the Shin. Which is why they’re dying by the dozen outside, Akiil thought bleakly. Still, the Aedolian didn’t know any of this. He had orders and the urge to see them carried out. Akiil intended to exploit both.
“You won’t find the abbot without me,” he shrieked. “Please!”
Kelt cursed, glanced around the burning room once more, and then, sword extended in in a way that very much belied his promise to spare the hidden monk, strode across the room. Across the room and directly beneath Akiil.
There wasn’t time to think or to second-guess, which was good. Akill didn’t relish any of the thoughts ready to hand, and he was all out of guesses. It was good to have the high ground, good to get the drop on a mark, but good moves could still get you killed. He wondered, as he fell, how many men had gone to their deaths thinking they had chosen wisely. If he misjudged the timing or the distance, if he’d made any noise as he dropped off of the beam, Kelt would react, and that long, well-honed sword would put an end to one more monk.
Akiil had not, as it turned out, misjudged the timing. Or the distance. After years at the monastery, he could still launch himself silently off a rafter. He landed on the man’s back, one arm wrapped tight around the gorget, the other clutching the knife, searching for the opening in the helm. The soldier, quick and strong even in his armor, cursed and whirled, but Akiil held on. Letting go, after all, meant dying.
“Stop it,” Kelt snapped. Even now, he sounded more bureaucrat than warrior, a man dealing with an administrative inconvenience. “Just submit and I’ll…”
A belt knife was no broadblade, but it was more than an administrative inconvenience, especially when it was protruding, as now, from an eye. Akiil twisted it a quarter turn, tried to imagine he was killing a goat, then let the body drop to the floor.
Two of the roof timbers had already snapped, and the fire was greedily at work on the others, but there was time for what came next. There had to be time. He could still flee, escape into the night and the endless mountains, but if there were prisoners, if the Aedolians had taken Kaden rather than killing him, Akiil might need the dead man’s armor, and there was no way on Ae’s earth he was carrying it out in his arms.
It had never occurred to him that he might have occasion to bless Samm the Club. Samm was an ugly misshapen brute – all neck and brow and shoulder – who owned a tavern back in the Quarter. He’d been known to kill barkeeps and serving girls with his bare hands on the suspicion of stealing, and the Club was always suspicious. As employers went, he left something to be desired; on the other hand, there was always something to be desired in the Quarter, and Samm was an employer, one with solid Annurian coin in his purse. If you watched where you stepped and never even thought of stealing, it was possible to walk away with a tiny portion of that coin.
Akiil’s job at the tavern was to strap drunkards into Samm’s battered sets of armor. The Club was a vicious son of a bitch, but he was a shrewd businessman, and had learned long before Akiil was born that he could sell more ale if he provided entertainment to wash it down. Samm furnished a couple of blunted swords, a few suits of dinged-up, bashed-in armor, and each night around sundown cleared the tables to the side, opening the floor for betting while Akiil and a girl about his age – Jassim – tried to pack the sweating, cursing belligerents into those suits of armor.
Samm even gave the two children titles: they were squires. Akiil didn’t mind the mockery. The girding for battle became as much a part of the show as the battle itself – the comic prelude before the violence – and if the two squires managed to get the crowd laughing hard enough people sometimes threw them a few coppers. It was easy work, somewhat entertaining, and relatively undeadly. Now it looked likely to save his life.
He glanced up at the crackling beams and rafters as his fingers – sweaty and blood-slick, but still nimble – worked the leather straps of the Aedolian’s armor, freeing the breastplate, then the gauntlets, then the helm. There wasn’t time to mess around with the gorget or the greaves – but with any luck the darkness would cover the lapse.
The man’s sword, when Akiil finally snatched it from the flagstones, burned in his palm. Later, much later, he would have cause to remember that burning, would think of it as warning, an unheeded warning. In the moment, he put the pain aside, snatched up the helm, and clamped it down on his head. The air inside the steel was hot and heavy. The extra weight made him feel dangerously slow. He took a precious moment to summon the memory of the dead Aedolian’s walk, the way the man had moved and turned in his armor, his grip on the sword. When he was certain he had it right, Akiil shifted his body into an imitation of the posture.
He’d learned years ago, learned the hard way, that a physical disguise was worthless if you didn’t have the movement to go with it. People noticed posture and stride, carriage and gesture, noticed it all on basic animal level below rational thought. If you moved wrong, they looked twice, started asking questions, and Akiil was not prepared, with Ashk’lan burning all around him, to answer questions. One of the rafters groaned, then cracked. He straightened his back another just a little more, then stepped from the kitchen into the darkness, into the killing and the dying.
The stone cliffs at the edge of the Shin compound were just a short run distant. Even in the armor, he could cover the space in a few dozen heartbeats. That armor, however, changed the calculation. It gave him new options. New responsibilities.
Only help, he reminded himself, when it won’t get you killed or seriously fucked up.
But in the madness of the dying monastery, there was no way to be sure what would get him killed. A smart gambler played the odds, not some asinine hunch, but then, most gamblers were playing with coin, not with the lives of their friends.
“’Shael take it, Kaden,” he muttered, turning away from the safety of the cliffs, toward the chaos of the monastery.
A part of him, the hard, unflinching part that had kept him alive all those years in the Quarter, knew that there was little chance of a dramatic rescue. Either Kaden was dead already, or the Aedolians had him. In either case, he was beyond Akiil’s help, stolen armor or no. All of this was almost certain, but almost certain wasn’t quite the same thing as certain. The only way to be sure was to look.
“Son of a bitch,” he muttered, striding past the refectory, sword at the ready, taking care to keep his shoulders back, chin up. He put an eagerness into his gait, a purpose. The urgency of a hunter was not the same as the urgency of the hunted. For a few steps, he slipped out of his own mind – another Shin trick with unexpected applications – and into that of the dead soldier, wearing the man’s willingness to kill as though it were another, stronger armor. For a horrible flash, Akiil felt actual eagerness, as though he had waited a long time to do this bloody work.
When he rounded the corner of the stone building, however, his own fear and confusion came crashing back. The pavilion that the Annurians had erected for Kaden, the central part of their elaborate trap, was fully ablaze now, flames crawling up the canvas, ripping at the pennons, ribbons of fire snapping in the night wind. That fire had its own voice, a low growl, vicious and persistent.
There were more monks than there had been earlier, more dead monks, bodies splayed across the hard gravel. A few men in armor charged from the dormitory into the meditation hall, and then, for just a moment, the square was still.
This would be the time, Akiil told himself. He didn’t move.
The full folly of his actions loomed suddenly large, and the sly beast in his brain, that clever creature that had kept him alive all those years before he came to Ashk’lan, howled at him to flee before the Aedolians returned. Akiil wrestled the impulse, collared and choked it until it subsided. It felt like strangling a part of himself, an important part.
He stared at the corpses a moment longer, wondering who they were, then tore his gaze away. The tent was just a few paces distant. He took three breaths, stilled his heart, and willed his limbs into motion.
Shielding his face from the heat, he flicked open the canvas with the tip of the blade, half-stepped inside. A massive bed. Silk hangings worth more than Ashk’lan itself, all burning, the figures on them darkening, twisting as though in agony. A Si’ite rug that some idiot had hauled all the way up the mountains. A few candlesticks. Of Kaden, there was no sign. Which was either wonderful or awful. No way to know, to be sure.
He started to turn, then noticed the slash cut through the back of the tent, a frayed rent as tall as a man. Someone had come in that way, or escaped. Holding his breath in the blistering air, ignoring the burning canvas, he crossed through the tent, took the canvas in one gauntleted hand, ran it between fingers made clumsy with metal. The fibers were bent away from him, meaning someone cutting from the inside out. He stepped through, dragged in a long ragged breath, then smiled. If Kaden had cut his way free, it meant something else had gone awry with the Annurian plan, which meant…
“You!” a voice shouted, pulling him up short. “Kelt, is that you? Get over here!”
He turned to find another Aedolian, taller and wider than Kelt had been, the insignia of command on his upper arm. He was waving at him with a sword. Akiil cursed silently. The bastard had recognized his armor. It seemed implausible, but then, Akiil could tell half of the monks in Ashk’lan by the faded cloth and cut of their robes.
Fear screamed at him to flee, but he crushed the fear, turning slowly to face the Aedolian. He called to mind the dead soldier’s voice, the nuances of pacing and intonation. It would have been easier if he’d been able to hear more, but he hadn’t been able to hear more. You worked with what you had.
“What is it?” he called back, pitching his voice a little higher, slowing down his words, finding the leisurely cadence of the man he’d killed.
“More fucking monks,” the soldier said, waving him over again. “Need murdering.”
The words hit him like a brick. Slowly, unwillingly, he turned. Two Shin knelt beside the dormitory. The Aedolians must have dragged them out while he was in the pavilion.
Akiil knew them both, of course. The one on the left was Buiel of Santaran, an acolyte just a few years older. Buiel was a stiff, stubborn ass – he stuck to every last inscrutable detail of the Shin teachings with a fervor that had once goaded Akiil to pour a quarter of the precious bottle of smoke liquor he’d stolen from an Urghul trader into the older acolyte’s soup. For one delightful evening, Buiel had reeled around the refectory and meditation hall singing and chanting, drunk as a sailor on shore leave. The next morning, after almost vomiting up a lung, he’d redoubled his devotions to the Blank God. It didn’t matter. Akiil was satisfied. He’d seen, if only briefly, the man inside the monk.
Now, he realized, he was seeing the man again. Buiel of Santaran was kneeling. Sobbing. He cradled his scorched arm in his lap, but his eyes were not on the arm; they tracked the Aedolian looming above him, obviously terrified. So much, Akiil thought bleakly, for Shin detachment. Then, before he could move, the Aedolian hacked Buiel’s head from his shoulders, broadblade rising and falling with all the dull economy of a man splitting wood.
Buiel didn’t fight, didn’t even raise a hand to try to block the blade. Through the brief space of his own murder, he remained as still as a man already dead. Back in the Quarter, Akiil had seen people killed, but back in the Quarter people fucking fought. A wrist wouldn’t stop a blade, but that was no reason not to throw it up there anyway. He felt ready to vomit.
The Aedolian raised his sword, then paused, turned back to Akiil.
“Here…” he said, gesturing to the remaining monk. “You can slaughter this old goat.”
The night was suddenly scalding hot, bright and dark and awful all at once. The remaining monk, the old goat, was Scial Nin. Abbot of Ashk’lan.
Akiil wanted to run, needed to run, but to run now was to die, and before he’d decided what to do, how to escape, how to turn away from this fate at the very least, he was moving forward, bare sword in his hand, as though the words of the Aedolian were a hook and line drawing him in. In the space of a few heartbeats, he was standing before Scial Nin, staring down at the abbot in horror.
“Knew you wanted your share,” the other soldier said, breathing heavily beneath his helm. “He’s all yours.”
“Good man,” Akiil replied, again in Kelt’s voice, the words effortless, necessary, disgusting on his tongue. “My thanks.”
He didn’t know where to look. Not at the Aedolian – it was a miracle the man hadn’t realized something was amiss already. He glanced into the still, chilly sky above the smoke, then realized how strange that would seem, this looking to the stars, and turned his gaze reluctantly, inevitably to the abbot.
If Scial Nin was afraid to die, it didn’t show. The man knelt in the rough gravel as though he had settled there to do some sort of task – planting carrots, maybe, or scooping mud from the shallows to make clay. His eyes, as he studied Akiil, were dark and steady. If anything, he looked curious.
“Sooner rather than later, Kelt,” the Aedolian growled. “These little robed fuckers are crawling all over the cliffs. I understand you want to savor it, but there’s more where this one came from. Put the blade in his belly and we’ll go hunting.”
Only help when it won’t get you killed.
Akiil stared at the abbot.
His mind scrambled as he raised the stolen weapon. The sword felt suddenly, terribly light. The sharp tip hovered a hand’s breadth from the abbot’s chest.
Scial Nin watched Akiil, eyes unreadable, then reached out to touch the point of the blade. Akiil recognized the gesture from a hundred different memories, memories he never realized he had. Life among the Shin was like that. You didn’t forget the things you should have.
As the monastery burned around him, he stared into the past as though through an open doorway, watching Scial Nin touching the twisting green tendrils of the bean shoots as they curled up out of the earth all blind and eager for the sun; watching Scial Nin touching the long icicle hanging from the eave of the refectory, dark skin warm against the cold, clear bleb blazing with the dawn light; watching Scial Nin touching Akiil’s own unruly hair when he’d first arrived at the monastery, the old abbot smiling at the boy’s refusal to have it cut. Akiil had asked him once, the question riding the thin line between civility and impertinence, why he was always touching everything.
The abbot fixed him with that stare he had, the one that settled down on you like a constable’s cuff.
“People trust too much in their eyes and ears. There are other ways to know a thing.”
What the monk hoped to know about the sword at his chest, Akiil had no idea. His own hand didn’t tremble – he’d always been steady at the moment when the dice flew – but he could feel his heart slamming over and over against his ribs, trying to break free, to be somewhere else.
“Stop posing,” the Aedolian growled. “Start killing. There’s more when you’re finished with this one.”
Akiil glanced at the soldier. The stupid son of a bitch clearly had no idea that the monk kneeling before him was the leader of the entire community. Not that he could have known, really. Nin was dressed in a simple woolen robe just like the rest of the monks. Like the rest of the monks, he’d been dragged from his cell in the long stone dormitory. It was clear as a knife in the eye that the Annurians had orders to kill everyone at Ashk’lan, and yet, Akiil thought desperately, if he could find a way to reveal Nin’s identity, he might buy them both a little time. Time, when you had the sharp end of a sword at your neck, was gold.
“Hold up,” he said. “Hold up. This one doesn’t look like the rest.”
It was a risk, this hesitation. So far, the flow of events had carried him along, a great river of blood and death. So far, he had gone with the current. Struggling against that flow, trying to slow things down, would draw attention.
“What do you care what he looks like, Kelt? Put the steel in him, pull it out. Then we’ll find some other pious fool and repeat.”
“What if this one’s a leader?” Akiil asked, sweating but steady. “Ut might want him.”
“Ut does want him. He wants him dead. So make him dead.”
As they spoke, another knot of guards charged up from behind the burning pavilion, breath rasping in their steel helms. All of them carried swords. The swords, Akiil observed grimly, were bloody, but the swords weren’t the problem. The problem was the added pairs of eyes. The night was dark, but not that dark. Fires were burning through everything that could burn. All the Aedolians couldn’t be fools all the time. Sooner or later Akiil was going to make a mistake, and someone was going to notice. He might have been able to outrun the bastards if he weren’t wearing half his weight in armor, but he was wearing the armor. Samm the Club’s belated gift wasn’t turning out to be such a blessing after all.
Slow down, he told himself. You’ve been in tight places before.
But before was a whole lifetime earlier. Eight years among the Shin had hardened his legs and smoothed the edges of his anger, but they’d also dulled his instincts and reflexes, instincts and reflexes you needed if you wanted to survive this kind of quick, dangerous work. Over the years he had worked out, at least in his own mind, a sort of deal with the Shin – he wouldn’t dodge when they hit him, and in return no one would kill him. No such deal existed with the Aedolians. And yet, if he could hold his cover just a little longer, long enough for the next crisis, he might be able to get the abbot out of this mess.
As his mind scrambled through the possibilities, a gentle pressure at the tip of the sword yanked his head back around. Scial Nin’s hand, wrapped around the blade. Akiil stared. Blood, black and bright in the firelight, glistened on the abbot’s dark skin.
“You have my blessing, Aedolian,” he said quietly, “for what you are about to do.”
The truth hit Akiil like a brick. The abbot knew. Despite the armor and the accent, even in the fire and awful dark, Scial Nin knew him. He struggled to find something like the Shin calm, but for all those uncountable hours sitting cross-legged on ledges and running in the snow, Akiil was no monk. He was a thief, a branded thief from the Perfumed Quarter. A whole wardrobe of shitty robes couldn’t change that.
“This one…” he began, trying to draw the sword back.
Nin kept his grip on the steel. The old man had always been so much stronger than he looked.
“This one,” the abbot said, speaking over him, through him, “worships an older and greater god than He of the Grave. This passage holds no terror for me. Aedolian.”
Akiil forced himself to breathe, the training of a decade all but scrubbed out by the horror. The abbot drew the tip of the sword against his chest, pressed it to his robe just below the heart. It had seemed entirely possible, when the attack first crashed down upon Ashk’lan, that Akiil himself would die before the night was through. He hadn’t been ready to die, but he’d expected it.
He had not expected to kill. Not the monks. Not the man who had, in the strange, severe way of the Shin, given Akiil a home, a hearth, a measure of peace. He could feel his stomach twist, could feel the bile rise in the back of his throat. His hand refused to tremble.
“The fuck is wrong with you, Kelt?” the other Aedolian demanded. For the first time, Akiil could hear the hint of confusion in the question. Dangerous confusion. “Cut the old goat, if he wants it so bad.”
Akiil glanced over his shoulder, then turned back to the abbot. To his shock, Scial Nin smiled.
“Pride is error,” he said, voice low enough that only Akiil could hear. “Principle is error. Bravery is error.”
“Then what is the point?” Akiil hissed back, his own voice slick with desperation.
“There is no point, Aedolian,” Nin replied. “The world is wider than us. Deeper. Why should there be a point?”
The words should have been bleak, but they were not bleak. The abbot sounded calm, ready. He sounded free. Akiil threw his weight into the sword.
Scial Nin, the last abbot of Ashk’lan, seemed to catch his breath as the sharp blade caught, then cut. How many times had the old man measured out those breaths over his decades of meditation? How much of the cold northern wind had passed through those lungs? The questions would remain unanswered. Unanswerable.
The body slumped forward onto the sword, so much lighter than Akiil would have expected. He let it rest there a moment, the dead monk hanging in a posture between thought and repose. Then, with an effort that tore something loose inside himself, something he didn’t think would ever heal, he leaned back, put one stolen boot on the abbot’s shoulder, and kicked the corpse free. His hand didn’t shake.
“Let’s go,” he said, gesturing toward the burning buildings.
Tears blurred the flames and burned his face, but the helm hid the tears.
He’d rehearsed the words so many times – in alleyway brawls, fleeing drunkards back in the Quarter, even clawing his way over the Circuit of Ravens in the dead of winter.
He’d never thought, not until this very moment, to ask why it was worth bothering.