Excerpt: THE ETERNAL KINGDOM by Ben Peek (Tor)

PeekB-3-EternalKingdomUKThe Eternal Kingdom, the final novel in Ben Peek‘s well-received Children trilogy is now available in the UK. Published by Tor, it concludes the story started in The Godless and Leviathan’s Blood, as well as the prequel novella Saboteurs. To celebrate the release, the publisher has given CR an excerpt to share. But first, the novel’s synopsis:

A nation in fragments

On the shores of Yeflam, Ayae struggles to keep her people together. She acts as liaison between the camp leaders and the immortals who could save them. Zaifyr’s immortal siblings have arrived — but they have their own unfathomable agendas and Ayae is caught in their power games.

An army on the march

Heast has returned to his role as Captain of Refuge, a mercenary unit that answers the call of lost causes. With help from an unexpected source, Heast and his band of mercenaries could turn the tide of war — if they live long enough.

A world in danger

Bueralan Le is trapped in the company of the new god child. Though he fights to prevent her from unleashing her forces on the world, he is bound by blood to her darkest creation. The future of the world may depend on his choices.

And now, on with the Prologue…

*

Prologue

At the age of six, Eilona Wagan’s mother told her stories about the gods.

It had been her father’s idea. Eilona was a quiet child and, in an attempt to get her to interact with other children, he had taken her to an afternoon performance of Tall Tales, a popular children’s performer in Mireea. When the two arrived at the tent, Eilona had been so overwhelmed by the size of the crowd that she had pan­icked and her father had been forced to take her back to the Keep. The sight did not go unnoticed, but despite the potential embar­rassment, her father returned alone and purchased all of Tall Tales’s books. One of Eilona’s lasting memories of him was when he returned and told her that, if she loved the stories, she could have Tall Tales come and perform for a smaller group. She told him that she did not care and he, for his part, ignored her. He sat down on the floor next to her and read. The afternoon’s sun sank while his deep voice shifted between a whisper and a shout, depending on whether the scene was one of solitude or of action. He introduced her to knights and maidens and to their worlds of horses and swords and gowns and evil wizards. He laid the book in his lap so that his long arms could stretch and flow during daring chases and sudden rescues. He even made the sounds of hooves thundering down roads and swords crashing into each other.

By the time the moon had risen, he had enthralled her with the stories printed on the roughly cut pages. He had done such a good job that it became a ritual, and after he died, two years later, her mother continued it.

Her mother was a very different person to her father, however. Whereas he was tall, lean and dark-haired, her mother was solid and fleshy and changed her hair colour regularly. She turned it from red to black to brown and, occasionally, she mixed lurid bright blues and greens into it as well. After Eilona’s father died, it remained a sombre dark brown for nearly a year, as if, in her grief, a part of her had stilled.

Unsurprisingly, there were no knights and no maidens in the stories her mother told. Instead, she spoke of creation. She spoke of how a giant god tamed the elements and became their jailer with his huge stone weapons and long, long set of chains. She spoke of how the God of Death wandered the roads, and how he met with the stone statues of the God of Life in the first and last light of the day to discuss who had been born and who had died. She read stories of how the continents had been made by the hands of a woman, and how the sky was given currents and pattern by a man. She spoke about how fire was given to humanity, not stolen as others said, and how the first creatures to live in the ocean were com­manded by their god to tell the humans who hunted them their names, so that they knew who they hunted and would do so with respect.

Even at the age of six, Eilona knew her mother’s stories were morals disguised as fictions. It did not surprise her. Her mother did not believe in a world of gilded cages or fanciful illusions and, with her father’s mortality now an event in both their lives, her mother would not indulge in it even briefly. Every fantasy she told her daughter had to have a point and a lesson. But it was not until much later that Eilona realized how rare the tales her mother told her were, and how they revealed in her a more educated mind than she had ever suspected.

When Eilona first learned this, she was far away from Mireea. She was in Zoum, in a small mountain town named Pitak, where the campus of the University of Zanebien lined the mountains like a series of old, broken guard posts. The nation of Zoum was defined by its bankers, by the solitary men and women who were called to witness deals, to act as proxies in sales, and to ensure that the finances of the world were kept in order. Most bankers believed that their work was important because there was no natural order in the world, but many people would have been surprised to learn that in the University of Zanebien, economics was not what was studied. It was, instead, a domain for philosophy. It was there, in these small classrooms, that Eilona discovered how her mother had pieced together her god-inspired tales from books so old that they survived only in half-translated copies, in rare editions, or in largely oral traditions. It was just one of the many surprises the university held for her.

Another was the experience of how, with Eilona living abroad, she and her mother became closer. She would not say that they were intimate – Eilona could admit now that she left Mireea in disgrace and that the contact she and her mother had until she was twenty-two was strained – but each year she was away, she saw the references of her childhood unravel and felt herself draw closer to a greater understanding of her mother. When she finished her studies and was offered a job as a lecturer, she stayed, as much to further her knowledge of the woman with whom she had fought as a child and young adult, as to further her academic pursuits.

When her mother’s letter had arrived three months ago, Eilona had been relieved. News had reached Pitak that Mireea had been destroyed by Leeran forces and she had sent out letters to learn the fate of her mother and stepfather. But no matter her gratitude at the confirmation that both were alive, Eilona greeted the sight of the woman who delivered it, Olcea, with a terrible certainty.

It is much worse than has been reported, she thought as she met the witch. My stepfather is dead. My mother is crippled. A witch does not deliver good news.

Yet the letter the other woman gave to her was three pages in length and contained nothing personal. Instead there was a set of instructions for Eilona to deliver to investors and bankers through­out Zoum. It was, she thought, a letter that would have been surprisingly cold, even when she and her mother had been at their most distant.

Olcea, who wore layers of thick black and grey, sat before her while she read. Her wrapped hands rested on the table, while at her feet sat a solid backpack.

‘Is she well?’ It was the first question Eilona asked. ‘She is not injured?’

‘Physically she’s fine, but mentally?’ The witch offered a slight shrug. ‘Things are difficult in Yeflam.’

‘Is that why she sent this?’ Eilona had led them to an outdoor table made from white-painted wood. ‘It is – if I do what she says here, she will not be able to provide for herself, much less a nation.’

‘I have not read it.’

‘But she told you about it?’

‘In parts. It sounded as if she had bartered for something.’

‘What would be worth this much? This will bankrupt her. It will leave her with nothing.’

‘Your mother—’ The witch cut her sentence short and sighed. ‘Mireea is lost. The Leerans have destroyed it. Our home exists only in memory now.’

Eilona’s memories were not such that she would miss Mireea. She began to fold the letter along its creases. ‘But you still work for my mother?’

‘I made my life on battlefields.’ Olcea paused and, in that moment, Eilona saw the fatigue set deep into the other woman’s dark skin, the grief that was at its core. ‘I left before the first Leeran soldier arrived in Mireea. I am not proud of that, but I did. I had planned to go to Gogair to start a new life. I told myself that a slav­er’s town always has use for a woman like me. That is what fear will do to you, child. Fear will lead you to betray who you are and it will cost you the image that you hold of yourself. My fear guided me all the way to Yeflam before I stopped myself. It was there that I real­ized I had spent too much of my time working with orphans to work for a slaver. I was still living in Yeflam when your mother found me. She did not spare me her judgement when she asked me to deliver this letter. I agreed because she was right in that, not because I thought she was right in what she wrote you.’

The conversation ended and Eilona escorted Olcea past the hedges and out onto the street before returning to the table and the letter. There, she sat until the afternoon’s sun began to rise. By then, she had reread the three-page letter, refolded it, unfolded it, and read it again.

She would do what her mother asked: there was no doubt of that, even though she disagreed. What she did not expect, however, was that in doing what her mother asked, she would feel a pull towards the Floating Cities of Yeflam and the ruins of her child­hood home on the Spine of Ger. In the following days, as she travelled throughout Zoum, as she saw the bankers her mother named, the feeling increased. Like her, each of the men and women she met had a list of concerns about what was asked. Each asked to see her mother’s letter personally. All of them told her that what her mother asked for was a mistake. One said that her mother must be in danger. Another that it had to have been written under duress. When the last banker asked her to return to her mother to verify what was written, Eilona agreed. At the end of the week, she took her place beside Olcea in an old cart pulled by a hulking black ox.

Laena watched her go. Her partner wanted to accompany her, but she was still recovering from an attack of pneumonia caught on an excavation site in Faer, where the remains of a pair of statues created by Ain, the God of Life, had been found. Besides, Eilona told her, after she kissed Laena goodbye, her mother would probably be in charge of Yeflam by the time she and Olcea reached it.

She hoped that it was true. After a week of travel, she had almost come to believe it.

Then the new god, Se’Saera, was named.

For Eilona, the knowledge came upon her gently, but not with­out strangeness. When the morning’s sun rose, she discovered that she could not remember a time in her life when she did not know Se’Saera’s name, even though she knew, intellectually, that she had not known it for more than a day. In addition, it was a name with little context. Eilona knew only that Se’Saera was a god. She knew nothing of the ethics, morals, or structures that defined a god, that had defined the old gods.

For Olcea, however, the experience was less pleasant. She was physically ill after the name came to her and when Eilona asked about it, when she tried to help, the witch pushed her away. It was as if she had seen in the god’s name a horror that Eilona had not and her violent refusal to talk about it in the following two months did little to explain the experience.

Yet, despite the revelation of the new god, the most troubling news was of the destruction of Yeflam. It arrived in bits and pieces: from travellers, from papers, from conversations overheard in towns. The Keepers had begun a civil war, some claimed. The Keep­ers had been thrown out of Yeflam, said others. Eilona recorded what was said in the letters she penned to Laena. She wrote about hearing that her mother was alive. That half of Yeflam existed. That Se’Saera had been in Yeflam. That a civil war had broken out. That a war between Leera and Yeflam had begun. The story Eilona could piece together made little sense. When the mountains of Zoum gave way to the green plains of Balana and Olcea led them to the coast, she knew only that the danger her mother faced was worse than any she had faced before.

‘You will be able to send the letters to Laena in Zalhan,’ the witch said, sitting opposite Eilona in the cold night, the shadows blending into her clothes. They were near the town and the smell of blood and salt was faint in the air. ‘It does not have much, but it has a postmaster.’

‘Bankers take the mail to Zoum,’ Eilona said. ‘Or private messen­gers, like you. Postmasters are not welcome.’

Olcea shook her head. ‘Who would have thought the mail would be so sensitive?’

‘Bankers,’ she replied, but the joke, like all their jokes of late, felt flat.

In the morning, Zalhan presented itself as a small strip of a town in the distance. At first sight of it, Eilona felt as if she was approach­ing something ominous – a feeling she struggled to rid herself of as she drew closer. She tried to explain the sensation away as a simple response to being near the ocean after Se’Saera’s arrival. After all, the smell of blood and salt was the smell of the Leviathan’s death. And hadn’t Olcea told her that the slavers’ town was not known for its law-abiding captains? She had been very clear about that when she explained that it was here that the two women would find passage to the northern side of Yeflam.

‘There are no guards,’ Olcea murmured from beside her.

The gate, which was made from long pieces of white-painted wood that had chipped over the years, stood open and unattended.

The ox pulled the cart slowly into the town. A long main road – the only road – ran down to the dock, cutting Zalhan in half. On each side of the road were wooden buildings. Most of them were two storeys in height, but every now and then one reached three, and when it did, it did so as if it were a height that the structure knew it should not aspire towards. Each had been painted a variety of colours – blue, green, white, yellow and red – and, as the silence in the town continued, the colours lent an air of strange morbid festivity.

Eilona felt her dread increase. She could count over twenty buildings, but she could not see a single person on the street. Like­wise, she could not see anyone on the wooden footpaths that linked the buildings together. Nor could she see the outline of a person through the windows. As the cart made its way down the road, it also became clear to her that she could not see any activity on the three ships moored at the end of the town. In fact, the only life that she could see belonged to the shadow of a large bird, flying high in the sky.

‘Stay in the cart.’ The witch pulled the ox to a halt and then reached behind for her solid pack. ‘You’ll be safe here.’

‘Where are you going?’ Her voice rushed out before she could stop it. ‘The town is empty!’

Olcea shouldered the pack and stepped off the cart. When her feet touched the ground, she paused. ‘There’s blood on the win­dows,’ she said, finally. ‘And you can smell the rot.’

The building Olcea walked towards was two storeys high and had once been painted a dark green. The three suns had faded it to a pale lime and, on the outside, there was a sign that depicted a ship inside a whale’s belly. Eilona could not make out the blood that the other woman spoke of, nor could she smell the rot, either. But as Olcea walked away from her and her sense of dread increased, Eilona left the cart. Once she touched the ground, she could sud­denly smell the stench of decay. By the time she had taken two more steps, she could see the stains on the windows: dark smudges of handprints, as if someone had left them there while trying to open the window to escape.

Eilona caught up with the other woman as she climbed the steps of the inn. There was a buzzing sound now, and it grew when the witch opened the door.

The morning’s sun illuminated only the entrance, as if it knew the horror that it would unveil if it went further. Its limited intru­sion on the room revealed not just the edge of a bar and the corner of an overturned table, but thousands and thousands of thick, fat flies. As Eilona raised her hand to her mouth to stifle the smell of the room, Olcea took a step forwards. When she did, a pair of lamps in the ceiling caught alight with fire and the shadowy blanket that lay over the room began to evaporate. Two of the table’s legs were revealed to be broken off. The table itself was cracked down the middle. Against it lay the body of a young woman, her head split open. Flies lifted and fell upon her like a shawl, crawling from her wounds, her mouth and ears. Beside her lay an old man who appeared to be sleeping, though by the angle of his neck and the flies that covered him, it was clear that he was not. Another man lay close to him. In his hand he held one of the table legs, the end a blunt, bloody mess that was also covered in flies. Another woman followed, and then another, and soon their bodies began to blend into each other as the density of the insects grew to such a level that the sex and identity of the dead was lost. All that remained was the horror of the massacre.

‘A witch,’ a woman’s voice said from above them. It was a strange voice: old, but deep and commanding. It ran through Eilona like a sharp blade across a brittle spine. ‘What kind of witch are you?’

‘A poor one,’ Olcea said quietly. Her face was still as she looked up the stairs, where the lamps revealed only a shadow. ‘I can steal a bit of the dead for light, nothing more.’

‘Ah, modesty.’ The first of the stairs began to creak. ‘But it is not necessary. In here, in this town, you should be who you are.’

‘I am nobody.’

‘I doubt that,’ she said. ‘Very few people lie to me.’

At the end of the stairs, the flies began to rise and buzz as a long staff hit the ground sharply. Then – as if they had been hushed – the sound of the insects began to subside. The woman who had spoken pushed through them and drew closer.

‘What happened—’ Olcea paused and Eilona saw that the hand around the leather strap of her pack was wet with blood. ‘What happened here is none of our business. What you have done is—’

‘What I pleased.’ The woman drew closer, revealing herself to be of such an advanced age that it was impossible to determine just how old she was. Her brown skin was light, as if it had been hidden away from the three suns, but it was mapped with deep lines and creases. Her grey hair was short and thick and had once – not so long ago, Eilona believed – been shaved down to her skull. Eilona pressed her hand against her mouth and tried not to speak, tried not to ask how long the old woman had been sitting in this inn, how she had survived the massacre here, though she desperately wanted to. She could not understand how a woman of her age, a woman clearly of no means – she wore an old robe of black and white and an equally old homemade leather belt with a dozen pouches – had been untouched. ‘But if it helps you sleep at night,’ the woman continued, ‘they were slavers. Not all, but some. They had been running flesh to and from Gogair’s markets and bringing home a quiet profit.’

‘Are you a witch?’ Eilona said, before she could stop herself. ‘Did they try to make a slave of you?’

‘She could never be a slave,’ Olcea said quickly. ‘The girl means no insult, My Lady. She doesn’t know who you are.’

‘But you do.’ The flies drifted away from the old woman, refusing to settle upon her clothes, even after she had stopped at the edge of the natural light in the inn. It was there that Eilona saw the scars around the woman’s mouth. Scars made from a thread that had bound her lips together. ‘I ask again, what kind of witch are you?’

The other woman hesitated. ‘The kind your brother does not like,’ she said, finally.

‘My brother. . .’ She turned to the massacre that lay behind her, to the rot and decay that she had sat in for hours, if not days. ‘When I came to this town, I received a letter about him from my oldest brother. He told me that our brother was dead.’ She made a small sound of disgust. ‘I am not usually a violent woman. Of my brothers and sisters, I think only I can claim that as a truth, but not here. Not in this town. As I read my brother’s letter, one of the men here said that the new god would bring them prosperity. He even lifted a glass to the idea.’ The old woman turned from the scene she had been staring at, turned back to Olcea and Eilona. ‘Tell me, witch, the man that you have bound to you, the man you carry on your shoulder – can he crew a ship across Leviathan’s Blood?’

‘Yes.’ The word sounded as if it was torn from Olcea’s throat. ‘But I do not have the blood to last that long.’

‘Take what you need from here.’

‘I would rather—’

Take,’ the woman repeated, ‘what you need from here.’

‘I will need some time,’ Olcea said, her voice suddenly submis­sive. ‘A day at least.’

‘There is no rush.’ The old woman stepped past her, but paused at the door. ‘At least, there is no rush today.’

Before the witch could stop her, Eilona followed the woman out of the inn. ‘Wait,’ she said. Behind her, the renewed buzz of the flies had begun to drown out her voice. ‘Wait!’ She took a few quick strides until she was standing beside the old woman. ‘You did not tell us your name.’

The woman did not reply. Instead, she lifted her gaze to the sky, and from it, the bird that Eilona had seen earlier began to descend.

‘My name is Eilona Wagan,’ she said, a touch of desperation in her voice.

The bird, a strange, white raven, the likes of which she had never seen before, settled upon the top of the woman’s long ashen staff.

‘I am called Tinh Tu,’ the old woman said.

***

The Eternal Kingdom is out now!

Also on CR: Interview with Ben Peek (2014); Guest Post on “The World Around Me, And the World Within Leviathan’s Blood

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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