To help kick off the blog tour marking the release of The Garden of Empire, J. T. Greathouse‘s second Pact & Pattern novel, Gollancz has provided CR with an excerpt! Picking up the story after The Hand of the Sun King, here’s the synopsis:
WAR MAKES MONSTERS OF EVERYONE.
Foolish Cur, once named Wen Alder, finds that his allies in the rebellion might cross any line if it means freedom from the Empire. But he can’t overcome a foe as strong as Emperor Tenet alone.
REBELLION HAS UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES.
Koro Ha, Foolish Cur’s former tutor, discovers the Empire is not so forgiving of those who raise a traitor. And their suspicion may cost him and his people more than he can imagine.
THE GODS ARE LURKING IN THE SHADOWS.
As war against the Empire rages, Foolish Cur knows there is a greater threat. The emperor plans his own coup against the gods, and they will wreak destruction if he tries. To stop him, Foolish Cur might have to risk everything – and resort to ancient magics that could tear the world apart.
It’s quite a substantial excerpt, so read on and enjoy!
I had met my uncle only twice before.
First, as a child. Young enough that time had long since filled the memory with fog. Yet through the mist, his wild eyes glinted sharp, as did the spears of the soldiers who followed after him to search my father’s house.
Our second meeting had been only a week ago, in the midst of a siege he had fled and I had broken, casting back the army that would have put an end to his rebellion.
Our third meeting would not be so brief. For the first time in my life, I would sit across from him and we would speak – the severed Hand of the emperor and the notorious rebel Harrow Fox, whose name and legacy had haunted me throughout my imperial career.
The stump of my right wrist cramped and seized as my uncle and his cadre approached Greyfrost Keep. The muted scrape of shovels rang in the crisp winter air. A remnant of the Nayeni army – a bare twenty-seven souls – had spent the last week digging pits in the ash for the blackened bones of the countless Sienese dead felled by the storm of fire, wind, and lightning I had conjured.
A flock of mismatched birds descended upon the courtyard. Ten in total, led by an eagle hawk that burst into a cloud of cinnamon scent, then resolved into my uncle. Harrow Fox rolled back his shoulders, working cramps from the thick muscles of his chest.
I approached as his cadre veered from the shapes of ravens, vultures, owls, and hawks into their natural forms, filling the air with the smell of magic. They stretched battle-hardened limbs beneath patchwork armour stitched with feathers, bones, and shards of stone – fetishes to mark them in a language of identity I might have understood, had I grown up learning Nayeni ways of thought rather than the doctrines of the empire.
‘Well met, Sun King.’ I bowed deeply at the waist. ‘Greyfrost Keep is yours.’
‘What remains of it, at least.’ Harrow Fox’s flint-sharp gaze lingered on me as I stood, marking my obeisance. ‘What honours the Sienese is an insult to the Nayeni, Nephew. You would do well to remember that. Where is my mother?’
‘In the main hall,’ I answered, flushing with embarrassment. ‘She awaits us there. Our contest with the imperial sorcerers left her weakened but alive.’
‘And cost you a hand.’ He nodded towards the stump at the end of my arm.
I wondered if, in giving evidence of my vulnerability, that wound reassured him. He knew little of me, save that I had overcome an imperial legion with powers beyond any ordinary witch – and, in turn, defeated a Voice and two Hands of the emperor. And, of course, that I had served the empire before coming to serve him.
The urge to restore my missing hand swept through me. I could envision the magic, not so different from the healing I had wielded to restore my grandmother from the brink of death and reknit her arm, torn apart when Voice Usher had tortured her with the three powers the empire had stolen from Toa Alon – dowsing, to find a cluster of nerves; cultivation, to force a vine of carrion creeper to grow rapidly through her flesh; and healing, to keep her on this side of death’s edge.
I massaged the stump. Memories of Oriole’s open throat and the crumbling obelisks of An-Zabat drifted behind my eyes. Arrogance had dealt me many wounds and, through me, shattered the lives of those I held dearest. I could ill afford to let it rule me now. My purpose was to serve my uncle and to see his vision of a free Nayen brought to fruition. I needed to assuage his doubts and fears, not inflame them, no matter what bruises my pride must suffer.
‘A small sacrifice compared to your decades of privation and struggle,’ I said, resisting the deep-trained urge to bow again. Instead, I gestured towards the doors to the main hall. ‘Shall we? Grandmother would like to speak with you, and we have a great deal to discuss ourselves.’
Harrow Fox stroked the grey streak in his beard, then issued swift orders to his cadre. While they called the remnant of the rebel army to muster before the broken gates of Greyfrost, my uncle followed me into the hall.
The bite of winter gave way to the languid warmth of braziers. Hissing Cat loomed over one of them. The glowing coals cast orange light and shadow across the ravens’ skulls threaded in her hair. A pile of bovine shoulder blades lay close to one hand, already carved with her questions in the ancient runes that none alive save her could read. The other held a long iron needle, its tip white hot in the coals. My grandmother sat at the table in the centre of the hall, transfixed by the other woman. She started at the bang of the door behind us.
‘It is good to see you hale, Son.’ My grandmother pushed herself to her feet, bracing herself on the table with her good arm. The other, withered by Usher’s torture, hung loose at her side, the fingers flexing one by one. Though I had saved her life and done what I could to restore her health, she seemed reduced, weaker than the warrior witch she had been, who had bested Hand Cinder with veering and flame.
‘And you, Mother.’ Harrow Fox wrapped her in an embrace, his eyes never leaving Hissing Cat. ‘Who is your guest?’
‘Just another batty old crone,’ Hissing Cat said. She waved the glowing tip of her needle. ‘We’re starting a knitting circle.’
‘This is Hissing Cat, my teacher,’ I interjected.
‘Ah.’ Harrow Fox nodded slowly. ‘She taught you to call that storm, I take it.’
‘No.’ Hissing Cat stabbed her needle back into the coals. ‘He collected that bag of tricks on his own. What came after, though, I’m willing to take credit for.’
‘We’re getting ahead of ourselves.’ I pulled out a chair. ‘Please, Uncle. Sit.’
Harrow Fox leaned on the table, drumming his fingers. ‘You say there are things we should discuss, Nephew. I agree. First, explain what you are doing here.’
My knuckles went white, and I feared the wood of the chair would crack. ‘I owe you – and all who would fight the empire – not an explanation but a debt. I have found the power I sought. My hunger for it led me, fool that I was, into imperial service. Now, I would use that power to repay what I owe. To see Nayen free, and an end to the empire and all its cruelty.’
‘You said he was ambitious, Mother,’ Harrow Fox said. ‘I see that has not changed.’
‘Ambition is only a failing if one cannot live up to it,’ my grandmother answered. ‘I have seen what he can do. Sit down, Son, and listen.’
Harrow Fox’s lip twitched, but he took the seat I offered. ‘No matter how powerful, you are only one man. The emperor has a legion of Hands and Voices, and the Fist that guards him day and night. Perhaps you have uncovered some secret that makes you more than a match for his sorcerers, but can you do battle with them in their thousands? More, are you a match for the emperor himself?’
A sharp crack echoed through the hall, followed by the acrid smell of burning bone. ‘He isn’t.’ Hissing Cat scrutinised the shoulder blade in her lap. ‘At least, not yet.’
‘There is more at stake than freedom, Uncle. You know that the emperor has reigned for a thousand years, yes? Slowly expanding his reach, swallowing the magics of the conquered and adding them to his canon. Have you ever questioned why he does this?’
‘The thousand-year reign is but a Sienese story meant to cow us,’ Harrow Fox snarled.
Hissing Cat threw back her head and laughed, a sound like grinding stone rolling up from the roots of a mountain.
‘Boy, I count my days from before your first Sun King conceived of a nation called Nayen,’ she said. Her eyes caught the glow of the coals. ‘I remember when the emperor called himself Tenet and fancied himself a poet. I watched him melt the better half of a continent down into a single language and a single way of life. Your little rebellion is hilarious to me, like a pin scratching at the flank of a lion serpent. Be grateful you have yet to rouse his ire. Tell the Toa Aloni, or the Sienese petty kings, or the gods themselves that the thousand-year reign is but a story and see how they laugh in your face.’
Harrow Fox’s hands curled into fists, his hackles high. ‘Nephew, are you certain this crone is on our side?’
‘I’m on my own side,’ Hissing Cat smiled. ‘For the moment, our interests align. I’d rather the world not end. How about you?’
At last, he turned his attention back to me. Though a duel between us could only end in my victory, I felt cowed by those hard eyes, so comfortable with violence. ‘That is what the emperor plans? To end the world?’
‘He means to avenge himself against the gods.’ I gestured to Harrow Fox’s right hand and the subtle scars that were the mark of his power. ‘Those represent an agreement to save the world from the chaos of war between witches and gods. The emperor was there when the agreement was made, as was Hissing Cat.’
At this, Hissing Cat waved and grinned, then reached for a fresh shoulder blade.
‘In exchange for the gods’ retreat from the world, the witches agreed to weaken themselves. The pact marks carved as a result grant a limited ability with magic – fire and veering, or mastery of wind and water, or the power to heal the body and speed the growth of vegetation – but more important than the power granted is the limit. A witch bearing a mark is dulled to magics beyond their own pact, even if their natural sensitivity and talent might allow far more. Thus the gods would no longer rend the world with their war, and the witches would pose no threat to them.
‘But Tenet conceived of a way around this limitation. He chose for the magic of his pact the power to transmit thoughts from one mind to another. This he used not only to unite his empire but to grant his servants the powers of other pacts. So long as his empire has conquered the people to whom those magics belong, he might add them to his canon of sorcery, conveying the knowledge of how to wield them to his servants without violating the agreement with the gods.’
Harrow Fox stared at me, fingering his beard, absorbing all that I had said. Deciding, perhaps, whether to believe my story.
‘And you think the emperor will fail?’ he asked at last.
‘The gods will not stand idly by,’ I answered. ‘Some would strike now, but others believe his reach exceeds his grasp, that the project of his empire will fail before it reaches completion. The wolf god Okara is among the former. He would have us disrupt the emperor’s plans before the gods agree to resume their war.’
My uncle leaned back in his seat and folded his hands across the broad plane of his chest. ‘And you know this because they speak to you, as they spoke to the first Sun King.’
I opened my mouth to protest, but he pressed on.
‘An eagle hawk’s eyes and ears are sharp.’ He planted his palms on the table and leaned towards me. ‘I heard whispers from those soldiers you’ve set to burying the bones of our enemies. They speak of you as a miracle worker, as one sent by the gods to liberate this island. In the few days of my absence, they have stitched charred scraps of that shattered forest to their jerkins – fetishes not to reflect their own histories, but to show their loyalty. Not to the rebellion, but to you, as though you were a god made flesh.
‘Do you know what I think, Nephew?’ His finger rose and stabbed at me. ‘I think the hierarchy of the empire corralled your ambition, and so you have come here to pursue it to the hilt. How better to wrest control of an army than by swooping in and saving it from certain doom? How better to consolidate that control than with a tale that lends your leadership divine purpose and the weight of the world’s salvation?’
‘Is his power not testament to the truth of what he says?’ My grandmother’s voice hardened in my defence. She raised her withered arm, grunting when it seized. ‘Do you see this? He has no marks of any pact, yet he brought me back from the edge of death.’
‘The best lies are built upon a cornerstone of truth.’ The muscles of my uncle’s arms were taut as cables, as though he might at any moment reach for his swords. ‘He has some secret knowledge, I am sure, but he twists it to his own purposes.’
His words struck like knives. How often in my short life had I armoured myself in half-truths? Yet now I came to him honestly, and to be accused of past sins when I had resolved to put them behind me wounded my heart.
A silence held between us, broken by the rattling of the skulls in Hissing Cat’s hair and her slow, rumbling chuckle. We all turned towards her. She looked up from the brazier.
‘Don’t mind me,’ she said. ‘I was just thinking about how much I miss my cave. Lovely paintings. The quiet. You know.’
I took a deep breath. ‘What can I do to convince you?’
He held his palms upright, like the bowls of a scale. ‘This is Nayen, Nephew. There is no hierarchy of empire to dictate who should stand above whom, only the scales of power and prestige.’ He lowered his right hand and raised the left. ‘You hold knowledge I lack. Your strength in magic is greater. There is an imbalance between us. One which dictates that you, and not I, should lead, though I, and not you, have dedicated my life to this struggle. Shift the balance in my favour.’
‘Gladly,’ I said. ‘How?’
He closed his hands and lowered them to the table. ‘Teach me to wield the old magic as you do. Let us fight side by side as equals, at the least.’
Hissing Cat’s bark of laughter echoed with the parting words of Tollu, the wolf-daughter, Nayen’s goddess of wisdom, as the gods held council to decide my fate. If he teaches the old magic, his life will be forfeit.
‘I am not jesting.’ Harrow Fox pointed to his witch marks, heat rising in his face. ‘If all you have said is true, I need only carve away these scars and I, too, will be free to call down storms of wind and lightning, no?’
‘It is not as simple as that,’ I began. The muscles in his jaw rippled with mounting fury.
‘You ask for the one thing he cannot offer,’ Hissing Cat said, still smiling cruelly in the aftermath of laughter. ‘And there’s no telling whether or not you would even have the capacity. The old magic is not like the new. It is fickle and bound by no rite of initiation.’
‘But I could do as the emperor has done,’ I blurted. ‘Create a canon and transmit my power to others. I have no desire to hoard it, Uncle, but offer it freely in service of the rebellion.’
‘Bah!’ Hissing Cat rose to her feet, her voice stripped of mirth, casting a long shadow across the hall. ‘Pure idiocy! If you could even manage it!’
‘For the first time, the crone and I agree.’ My uncle crossed his arms and studied me, as though searching for thorns around a piece of tempting fruit. ‘You have said yourself that the emperor wields his sorcerers as weapons. Doing likewise will only weigh the scale more heavily in your favour.’
‘What if I could make a canon outside of myself?’ The words leapt from my mouth before I had truly considered them, my subconscious mind – that constant traitor – piecing ideas together in desperation. If my uncle rejected me, as the empire had rejected me, to where else in the world could I turn? ‘The pacts rely on no transmission. I could make something like them, a means to grant the power to call the wind or heal wounds. To create witches to match Sienese sorcerers, but free from my interference.’
My arrogance and my hunger for magic had shattered countless lives. I could never trust myself to rule, nor to command a canon of sorcery. But I could make one and pass it on, giving the Nayeni the magic they needed to free their homeland. And perhaps, if I could win their trust, they might aid me in subverting the emperor’s plan to wage war against the gods. More, I could earn a place beside them, as one of them. The place I might have found if I had followed my grandmother into the mountains rather than chasing the treacherous golden path of imperial service.
If I had only hesitated, given this wild plan another moment’s thought before offering it to my uncle, how much might I have lessened the suffering to come?
Harrow Fox tilted his head. ‘Crone, you know his capacity. Is this a thing he can truly do?’
‘Not without my help,’ Hissing Cat fumed. ‘That, or fumbling like a babe in the dark for a few dozen years, grasping for layers of magic he hasn’t yet brushed with his fingertips.’
‘Will you help him?’
A line of tension held between Harrow Fox, Hissing Cat, and I. She looked at the shoulder blade in her lap, sneered, and tossed it back onto the pile.
‘We may well need something like this to challenge Tenet,’ she muttered, ‘but giving power is a far more fraught business than seeking it.’
‘Very well, then.’ Harrow Fox’s chair scraped the stone floor as he stood. ‘I will leave you to your work and tend to mine. This army – such as it is – must be made ready to march. The empire is on the back foot. We will not waste this opportunity.’
My grandmother brought her good arm to her collarbone in salute. I mimicked her, while Hissing Cat snorted and stirred the coals with her needle. Harrow Fox lingered a moment longer, his fingers still touching the tabletop as he examined me.
‘Mark me, Foolish Cur,’ he said. ‘As long as you serve the cause of Nayeni liberation, I will count you an ally. The moment I have reason to fear your betrayal, I will not hesitate. You may be stronger than me, but I would sooner die than give way to another tyrant like the emperor, no matter his blood.’
‘I have no intent to become a tyrant,’ I said, taken aback.
He rapped his knuckles on the table, narrowed his eyes, and swept from the room with no further word. The echoes of his footsteps and the slamming of the door hung heavy in the hall. Words of protest swirled within me, unspoken, leaving me unsettled.
He had accepted my help. That was a first step. Now I needed to deliver what I had promised. Perhaps then he would learn to trust me.
‘Come along, Cur.’ Hissing Cat had abandoned her brazier and now walked towards a shadowed door in the far corner of the room. ‘We should have a conversation of our own.’ She inclined her head towards my grandmother. ‘In private.’
‘Oh, don’t mind me,’ my grandmother muttered, flexing her withered arm. ‘I understand the need to teach secret lessons far from prying ears.’
I followed Hissing Cat down a dark hallway and a crumbling stairwell into a wide room with low ceilings. A fire smouldered in a circle of stones, waging a pitiful battle against the damp chill in the air. Marks and stains on the floor and walls spoke of a history of barrels and crates, some reduced by time and decay to smears of blackened dust. The shards of some dozen shattered shoulder blades littered one corner of the room.
‘You idiot!’ Hissing Cat snarled. She held out a finger, and the iron spike of her will drove into the pattern of the world. A tongue of flame danced in her hand, casting off cinnamon scent and filling my bones with phantom warmth. ‘Extinguish the flame, if you can.’
The old test, which I had failed dozens of times until finally overcoming it in battle with Voice Usher. Now, as then, I descended into the pattern of the world, becoming as a sphere of jade in the heart of the eternal interchange of birth and death, light and shadow, the rising and setting of the sun. One with the pattern, I reached out towards the weight of the flame she had created, a violent intrusion upon the natural flow. The walls of the emperor’s canon had crumbled at my touch, swallowed up and scattered, leaving Usher without his sorcery. The fire in Hissing Cat’s hand would crumble just the same.
My will splashed against hers, a single drop of rain upon a towering mountain. Frustration echoed from afar, disturbing the tranquillity of mind that came from wielding the old magic. I had mastered this, hadn’t I? And with it the power I would need to overcome the emperor and his sorcerers. I shut my eyes and hurled myself at her will. She would not unmake all my hope so easily.
For the briefest moment I felt the spike shift, like a splinter slowly pushed out by healing flesh. Hissing Cat grunted, and then power descended like nothing I had felt since kneeling before the emperor and his Thousand-Armed Throne.
The spike became a blade as hard as imperial steel, driving for the heart of the pattern. Feverish heat swept through me. I opened my eyes, gasping, expecting to see the flame in her hand raging like a forest fire. It flickered, gentle as a candle flame, unchanged but for the weight of will behind it.
‘Tenet’s attention is always scattered to the far corners of his empire,’ Hissing Cat said, her wrinkles deepened by flickering shadows. ‘You disrupted his transmission before he noticed what you were doing. Don’t think that trick will work again.’
She closed her fist, extinguishing the flame. As the flush and weight in the wake of her magic faded, weakness gripped my knees.
‘You look sick, Foolish Cur,’ she said. ‘And you should. You’ve just promised to help your uncle fight a war he hasn’t a hope of winning, and to give him a gift that, if given poorly, will shackle him with a curse. Do you have any notion of how to begin crafting a canon? Even I have little notion of how it might be done. Tenet alone in all the world’s history has made such a thing. And you yourself rejected it for the prison it truly is.’
I rolled my shoulders back, trying to project confidence I did not truly feel. She was right. I had no idea how to make good on my promise to Harrow Fox, but I had no choice but to try. The rebellion – and any hope I had to earn my uncle’s acceptance – depended upon my success. ‘I know I am no match for the emperor, but you are. You must be. With your help and guidance, I will find a way. And my canon will be no prison. I mean to give magic freely, not bind it to my will.’
Hissing Cat snorted. ‘As though that were possible. You speak with such certainty of things you do not understand. Five hundred years ago, maybe, I might have matched my strength to Tenet’s, but I’ve been lurking in a cave all that time while he’s been building an empire. If we took him by surprise, or you held his attention, I might stand a chance of overpowering him. But even that is no sure thing.’
I swallowed bile. ‘You said you would help.’
‘In time, when you are strong enough and I have regained more than a fragment of what I once was, we will make an army of our own and do what me must. But there is a great deal of the world left for Tenet to conquer. We have time, Cur, before he begins his war.’
‘Then why are you here, if not to fight?’ I demanded.
‘You’re the first witch of the old sort in a thousand years,’ she snapped back. ‘I don’t know why the pattern saw fit to spit you out, but I’m not going to let you get yourself killed fighting in a doomed rebellion.’
I seethed, terror and frustration mingling, becoming a potent fuel for my anger. ‘If you intend to keep me alive, you will need to fight beside me.’
The grey cloud of her hair seemed to crackle, as though ready to hurl lightning. Her mouth twitched and her eyes narrowed to pinpricks.
‘I could go back to my cave, Cur,’ she said, her voice a whisper like the first distant crash of thunder. ‘You’ll bash yourself to death against Tenet’s will, and I will laugh at your foolishness.’
‘We all die.’ I summoned all of my courage in the face of her fury. ‘At least my death will mean something while you wither away to dust and bones in your pitiful buried temple.’
Her body twitched, her face rippling in the wake of some hidden battle. I thought she might raise a hand and scour me from the world. Instead, a low rumble of laughter built in her chest till it echoed in that small stone-walled room.
‘You fought the gods once,’ I said. ‘Where is that courage now, Hissing Cat?’
She scowled. ‘Lost to the depths of regret and time. And that was a war fought with weapons we can no longer wield. We are trying to stop a war with the gods, Cur, not spur them into one.’
‘The gods are on my side!’ I held the momentum of the conversation now, and seized upon it, as though I were back in my father’s garden bandying questions of doctrine with my tutor, Koro Ha, not debating the fate of the world with a witch who could snap me in half with a thought. ‘We fight their enemy. They will surely forgive the use of any power to that end.’
She took a slow, deep breath and shook her head. ‘You leap ahead into dangers you hardly understand, trusting in beings you cannot comprehend. Come back to the cave with me. Caution is not the opposite of courage but its ally.’
Arrogance buries its roots deep. No matter how we think it is weeded from us, it springs back anew, masking itself with the flower of benevolent purpose.
‘I abandoned my people once to serve the empire. I will not abandon them again. We will stay and fight beside them. Nayen’s liberation will be the foothold we use to break the empire and all of Tenet’s plans.’
‘Will it now?’ The ravens’ skulls in her hair rattled as she shook her head. ‘I suppose I can either help you, abandon you, or kill you where you stand.’ A shiver rippled through me. She grinned at my discomfort and shrugged. ‘Only one choice might put a wrinkle in Tenet’s plans.’
The tension in my shoulders began to loosen. ‘You will stay, then, and fight with us?’
She harrumphed and slumped down beside her fireplace, her furs pooling around her crossed legs. ‘Oh, I’ll stay. At least until you butt up against the walls of your own idiocy and are ready to listen to wisdom.’ She stirred the coals back to life. ‘But know this, Cur – no mere imperial career or glimpse of magic is at stake, now. We contend with powers that once birthed mountains and boiled seas.’
My next word might have been the breath of wind that sent her willingness to support me – so precariously balanced on the edge of a cliff – tumbling to its destruction. But I had the good sense to leave her there, with her fire and her bones, and her promise, however reluctant, of co-operation.
Unsettled by a pair of fraught conversations, I went in search of the one place I thought to find comfort.
During our week-long stay at Greyfrost, Doctor Sho had converted one of the few rooms in decent repair into a makeshift infirmary. Bedrolls and blankets left behind by those who had died defending the keep now kept their wounded comrades warm. In the aftermath of the battle, I had healed dozens of wounds with magic, though most of our patients had needed only rest and rejuvenating herbs to restore them. There were three, however, who had lain unconscious while I knit their bones and sealed their weeping flesh, and had yet to wake.
Doctor Sho knelt over one such young woman when I arrived, supporting her head while he tipped a cup of warm tea to her slack lips. At his heel, the dog we had saved from the brutality of an imperial patrol – and who had, for a time, played host to Okara, his divine namesake – perked up at my approach. Okara rubbed against my leg, tongue lolling, while I scratched his ears.
‘I didn’t hear any explosions, so I’m assuming things went fairly well with your uncle,’ Doctor Sho said by way of greeting, not looking up from his task.
‘Well enough,’ I muttered. ‘We’re to march tomorrow.’
Doctor Sho dabbed tea and spittle from his patient’s mouth, then sighed and ran a hand through the wispy cloud of his hair. ‘I thought I had seen my last of war a lifetime ago.’
Guilt twisted in my chest. For the better part of the last year, Doctor Sho had been my constant companion while we traversed the length of Nayen – a rare ray of friendship to pierce the dark cloud of my lonely life. To drag such a peaceful man into violence felt like a profound betrayal, but the thought of leaving him behind made me ache with regret.
Before I could muddle through these feelings, let alone give them voice, he began stowing sacks of herbs, his mortar and pestle, and a few small metallic tools of uncertain purpose into the drawers of his medicine chest. ‘We’ll need to craft some stretchers for our patients. I’m not monstrous enough to leave them behind. Go find some spear shafts. They’ll do once you break the blades off.’
Gratitude welled in me, drowning my guilt. ‘Of course,’ I said, ashamed by the hitch in my voice. ‘And thank you.’
Doctor Sho looked up, his brow furrowing above dark, timeless eyes that had watched the advance of the empire from its founding.
Once, in childhood, he had warned me away from my hunger for magic, painfully aware of what it would cost me. I had been too arrogant then, and ignorant, to heed it. Perhaps a second warning, delivered at Greyfrost, potent with the mystery that swirled around him, might have turned me from my ruinous course.
Instead, he opened his mouth, closed it, and nodded sharply. And so I went in search of spear shafts, believing in my ignorance that I might lead this little army to victory, liberation, and the empire’s end.