The Empire’s Ruin: UK Exclusive Cover Reveal!

We have the UK exclusive cover reveal for Brian Staveley’s The Empire’s Ruin as well as a look at chapters three and four…

A new epic fantasy is on its way this summer with Brian Staveley’s The Empire’s Ruin (Ashes of the Unhewn Throne, Book 1) and we’re delighted to exclusively reveal the amazing cover in the UK!

Here is a synopsis for The Empire’s Ruin…

One soldier will bear the hopes of an empire.

The Kettral were the glory and despair of the Annurian Empire – elite soldiers who rode war hawks into battle. Now the Kettral’s numbers have dwindled and the great empire is dying. Its grip is further weakened by the failure of the kenta gates, which granted instantaneous access to its vast lands.

To restore the Kettral, one of its soldiers is given a mission. Gwenna Sharpe must voyage beyond the edge of the known world, to the mythical nesting grounds of the giant war hawks. The journey will take her through a land that warps and poisons all living things. Yet if she succeeds, she could return a champion, rebuild the Kettral to their former numbers – and help save the empire. The gates are also essential to the empire’s survival, and a monk turned con-artist may hold the key to unlocking them.

What they discover will change them and the Annurian Empire forever – if they survive. For deep within the southern reaches of the land, a malevolent force is stirring . . .

Said to be perfect for fans of George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie and John Gwynne, The Empire’s Ruin (Ashes of the Unhewn Throne, Book 1)  is written by Brian Staveley, the David Gemmell Award-winning author who is also the writer of Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne series.

Can’t wait to find out more about The Empire’s Ruin (Ashes of the Unhewn Throne, Book 1)? We have chapters three and four right here…

Chapter Three

 Please goddess, Ruc begged, blood streaming down his face, sluicing from his chin, draining onto the bridge even as the hot, driving rain washed it away, help me to love these men.

The men weren’t making it easy.

Two of them held him by the wrists while the third—a bastard the size of a warehouse door—loomed over him, frowning at his own fist.

“Look what you did,” he said finally, pointing to a gash along the back of his knuckles.

Ruc tried to focus, to see past the blood and the haze of pain.

Look!” screamed one of the others, seizing a handful of his hair, dragging his face up, then shoving it forward, until the fist was so close he could have kissed it.

“Your filthy tooth,” said the leader, “cut my hand.” He cocked his head to the side. “What do you have to say about that?”

“I’m sorry,” Ruc murmured without raising his eyes.

Please Eira, Lady of Love, he pleaded. Help me to be sorry.

There were priests who claimed that the goddess spoke to them daily, but as Ruc hung there, held up by the hands of these men who hated him, he could hear nothing but the rain drumming on the bridge, on the tiled roofs, on the water, rain so loud it nearly drowned out the sound of people passing a few paces away, of oars creaking in their locks in the canal below, of everything but his own breath rasping painfully in his chest as he struggled to breathe.

Too much rain…

The man with the cut knuckles had hit him enough times that his thoughts were beginning to drift. He could feel them floating off, but had no tether to lash them down.

Far too much rain…

The hot, wet jiangba season should have ended weeks earlier, around the equinox, but aside from one or two breaks, the storms refused to relent. The sun, which should have been been blazing in the sky, was little more than a pale, green-gray disc, like a dream of sun. No fire, no substance.

The rain, on the other hand, was all too real. The rain had weight. Not the individual drops, of course, which splattered harmlessly on the bridges and wooden causeways, drained from the baked-clay tiles of the rooftops, stippled Dombang’s ten thousand canals, but the idea of the rain, countless days of it, crouching over the city, pressing down, down, down, gently but unrelentingly, with a billion implacable fingers until even people who had lived their entire lives in the delta, who had seen forty or fifty or seventy rainy seasons, began to go about stooped, hunched, as though the weather were a weight that they bore on their backs.

The canals churned with debris, flooding the decks and markets. First Island was half-underwater. The bridge into the Weir had collapsed. A block of tenements near the east end of the Heights and been washed away, and after years of silting up, Old Harbor looked almost like a harbor again, the Ring of the Worthy standing incongruously at its center, a giant arena awash in the current. Dombang had grown so large over the centuries that it was easy to forget that the whole place—all the apparatus of bridges and docks and causeways—was built on mud flats and sand bars, but as Ruc struggled to hold onto his thoughts a vision filled him, a vision of Dombang sinking, all the tiled roofs, each with its carved wooden guardians, sliding beneath the flood until there was nothing left of the ancient city but the wind over the waters.

If only that rain had stopped the fire…

If the rain had stopped the fire, then the Purple Baths wouldn’t have burned. If the Baths hadn’t burned, there would have been no riots. If there had been no riots, then the man screaming in his face might have passed him by…

“Hey.” A quick slap dragged him back to the present. “I’m not finished talking to you, Mud Sucker. Did I say I was finished talking to you?”

With an effort, Ruc focused on the man’s face, watched the black-red heat of slow-building anger baking beneath his features.

“He asked you a question!” screamed one of the others, shaking Ruc by the hair.

“No,” Ruc managed. “We’re not done talking.”

On the other side, the third man remained silent—he hadn’t spoken a word since the attack began—but his hands were a vice around Ruc’s wrist, and he followed the unfolding violence with disquietingly eager eyes.

Striker, Screamer, and Silence. A grim triumvirate.

“What do you have to say,” asked Striker patiently, displaying his bloody knuckles once more, “about what you’ve done to my fist?”

Ruc struggled to frame a reasonable reply.

“I’m sorry for your fist,” he said.

Striker nodded, as though he’d expected the repentance, as though it were only appropriate. Then he frowned again.

“I’m not worried about the scratch,” he said with a shrug. “I see worse every day.” He stared down at his hands, which were stitched with scar. “What I’m concerned about is disease. I hear you Mud Suckers carry all kinds of diseases.”

Screamer leaned in close. “I hear they can’t even speak right. Got their own mud sucker babble: la tra. Chi cho cha.” He laughed a high, giddy laugh at his own mockery. Then he narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “How in the Three’s names did you learn to speak so good?”

“I’m not Vuo Ton,” Ruc replied. “I live here, in the city.”

“Well, I know that’s a lie,” Striker responded, shaking this head.

He hooked a finger, then almost delicately drew back the cuff of Ruc’s sodden robe, revealing the tattoos streaking his arm. “Only Mud Suckers got this crazy ink.”

For most of Ruc’s life, that ink—slashes of black lines slender as young reeds—had spared him interactions like this. For centuries, the people of Dombang had held the Vuo Ton in a kind of wary awe. While most of the city’s citizens didn’t dare set foot into the delta surrounding Dombang, the Vuo Ton lived their entire lives in that deadly labyrinth of reeds and shifting channels, making their home among the jaguars and crocs, the schools of qirna, nests of snakes that could fell a man with a single bite, webs of spiders that laid eggs in the warm flesh of the living. The delta was an easy place to die; city folk gave a wide berth to anyone who managed to survive out there.

They had, at least, before the revolution.

One of the consequences of Dombang’s blood-soaked bid for independence was this hatred. Anything different, anything strange, the wrong shade of skin, the wrong texture of hair, the wrong accent… any of it could see a person beaten, or worse. It had been easy to understand that feeling when it was directed toward the Annurians—after two centuries of occupation, most of Dombang’s population was glad to be rid of the imperial yoke and fiercely jealous of their newfound freedom. That righteous hatred, however, like a river after too many weeks of rain, had strained at its banks, gnawed away at the old levees of human sympathy, until finally the shores burst. When most of the Annurians were finally killed, or driven from the city, or forced into hiding, Dombang turned on the small Antheran community, then on the Manjari, demanding of each in turn a submission every bit as abject as that to which Dombang itself had been subjected.

After the worst of the purges, the violence had gradually subsided. People were still murdered, boats were still scuttled, homes were still burned to the waterline for no graver sin than their owners having the wrong eyes or name, but mostly it was possible to move around the city unmolested. Had been, anyway, before someone decided to burn the Purple Baths.

The attack had brought back all the city’s savagery in the space of a single night, and this time, it seemed, even the Vuo Ton were not exempt.

Not that he was Vuo Ton.

“I was raised in the delta,” he said, “but I chose to live here, in the city.”

Screamer glanced at Striker, obviously confused. Vuo Ton never abandoned the delta. The Given Land was as much a part of them as their worship of the Three.

Striker, however, just spat. “Sure. To get close. To blend in. To burn down our buildings when we’re asleep.”

Most rumor pinned the attack on the Annurians, but the men weren’t in the mood to discriminate. Vuo Ton or Annur, someone had been bold enough to attack, and Ruc was the person they’d found.

Striker spat again, this time in Ruc’s face, then slammed a fist into his gut.

Ruc almost choked on the pain. After a moment, he managed an unsteady breath, then one more, then opened his eyes, made himself look at the son of a bitch who had hit him, really look.

Please goddess, he prayed, help me to see the man behind the monster.

They were log drivers—that much was obvious from the tools they’d set aside when the beating began: pike pole, cant hook, a pair of ring dogs. Dangerous work in the best of times, and the height of a too-long rainy season was hardly the best of times. Dombang relied on lumber felled upstream, well above the delta, then driven down the Shirvian. Without it there could be no boats, no buildings, no bridges, no city at all. Which meant the log drives never stopped, not even for the rain. Men and women died on nearly every drive, caught between the logs and crushed, driven under the surface, held down by the weight of wood until their breath gave out. Sometimes the bodies washed up in the city. More often they were lost, devoured by the millions of things with teeth that lived out in the delta.

Ruc studied Striker’s face, tried to look past the violence and rage.

Despite the early hour, the man reeked of quey—they all did. They’d obviously been at it all morning…

And then at last, with a flick of her infinite fingers, the goddess opened Ruc’s eyes.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, “for the loss of your friends.”

The truth of his guess was clear in Striker’s narrowing gaze, in the tightening of Silence’s grip, in the way Screamer, who the whole time had been leaning so close Ruc could smell the quey and sweetreed mingled on his breath, yanked suddenly back, as though struck.

Understanding is the gateway to love—so ran the Fourth Teaching of Eira—and in that moment Ruc understood a little more of their anger.

“What do you know about our friends?” Striker demanded after a pause.

“Nothing,” Ruc replied. Every word hurt, but pain was better than the alternative.

Love shuns the easy path, he reminded himself. She walks on daggers and sleeps on coals. Her strength lies in her surrender. It had taken him a long time to learn to surrender. Sometimes, as now, he was frightened he had not learned it fully enough.

“I don’t know anything about them,” he went on, forcing aside his thoughts, “except that they were probably soldiers, and they died defending the Purple Baths, defending Dombang. The city owes them a debt. We all owe them a debt.”

For just a moment he caught a glimpse of the world as it must look to them. While the merchants and priests, shipwrights and seamstresses lived safe behind their wooden walls, the log drivers and fishers and soldiers risked everything to keep the city alive. Risked anything and, if the reports of the violence at the Baths were to be believed, sometimes lost everything.

Never mind that no one inside Dombang was safe. Never mind that ever since the revolution those shipwrights and seamstresses could be tied to a bridge piling and left for dead if their neighbors heard them whispering the wrong words, uttering the wrong prayers, questioning the wrong priests. Never mind that even now, years after the execution of the last Annurian legionary, people were still dragged from the their homes in the middle of the night, hauled into the delta, and abandoned to the snakes, spiders, jaguars, crocs—a barkeep maybe, who had once served Annurians with a little too much friendliness; someone who had unwisely taken a soldier as a lover…

Never mind all of that, Ruc told himself. You cannot hate a person after you see with their eyes.

Dombangan soldiers had died the night before, died by the score. Maybe childhood friends of the drivers. Maybe lovers. Not just that, but the drivers themselves probably wouldn’t live another five years. Running timber down the Shirvian was brutal work. The men beating him bloody would probably find their ends out there—pinned between logs, drowned, shot by Annurian snipers on the bank, bitten by snakes—this season, or the next, or the one after that. The knowledge was built into their bones. Hitting him, hurting him, was a way to remind themselves that they were still alive. Ruc understood better than he cared to admit the fierce vitality burning inside every act of violence.

“A debt,” Striker mused, leaning back on his heels.

Ruc nodded. “A debt I can never fully repay, but let me offer this.” He nodded weakly toward his sodden clothes. “In the pocket of my noc are a few silvers. Take them with my gratitude. Drink a toast for me to your brave, fallen friends.”

Not that they looked like they needed more drinks, but it wasn’t the role of a priest of Eira to teach another man his needs.

While Striker watched, impassive, Screamer rummaged for the coins. He held them up to the waxy light with a gap-toothed grin.

“Worth a couple bottles, at least.”

Ruc could feel the grip on his wrist loosening, and for a moment he dared to hope that that would be the end of it. The men would take the coin, find a tavern, leave him bleeding on the bridge. The beating would be finished. Love would have triumphed over the other, darker thing brewing inside of him, the urge to take them apart limb by bloody limb…

Please goddess, he murmured. Let my love for these men shine in my eyes. Let them see it, feel it, and go.

If love, however, had always triumphed over fear and hatred and despair, there would have been no need for other gods.

“Just a couple coins here,” Striker said, swiping the money from Screamer’s grip. “You saying the lives of Tall Truc and Pickles were worth no more than a few lousy silvers?”

The glittering silver looked like fish scale in the rain. He tossed it contemptuously over the railing of the bridge.

Screamer frowned, obviously confused.

“If I had more,” Ruc replied honestly, “I would have given you more.”

Striker shook his head. “All the silver in Basc wouldn’t make up for those two.”

The man’s face didn’t change, or his stance, but he was hotter suddenly, even hotter than before. Ruc could see the heat—if seeing was the right word for the way he perceived that red-black burning—baking from his chest, head, skin, until it was a wonder the raindrops didn’t sizzle when they struck the man. The goddess of love had given Ruc many gifts, but this ability to see heat came from another, darker, older place. On a cloudy, moonless night, he could track bats by their reddish shapes, watch the dull burning of the rats scavenging in the trash behind the temple, follow the feral cats slinking along the rooftops. In a building with thin walls, he could make out the vague forms of people in other rooms. It was not made for love, this redsight of his, but for hunting, stalking, killing.

As Striker burned, Ruc felt an answering heat rise inside himself, a eagerness, a hunger for violence.

The man drove a fist into his stomach.

Ruc doubled over, tried to cough, but Screamer ripped his head backward.

“You think you can pay for the lives of our friends?” he howled, spittle splattering Ruc’s face.

Silence leaned in close, eyes wide as his smile, then shook his head slowly.

He and Screamer still held Ruc by the wrists, but their bodies had shifted. If Ruc dropped to a knee and twisted, he could free his right hand, turn, catch Screamer beneath the elbow, break his arm, throw him…

No, he growled to himself. Love does not trade in equal coin. He tried desperately to force down the instinct. Not hurt for hurt, or rage for rage.

Please goddess, he pleaded, closing his eyes against the sight of the log drivers.

In that darkness, however, it wasn’t Eira that he found but another goddess entirely, one who had nothing to do with love. She stared at him with her golden eyes, silent as the sun. His whole life, Ruc had never heard her speak, but she didn’t need to speak. He could read that unwavering gaze.

These are weak creatures, she said. Stand, and snuff out their lives.

Fists rained down on him, pummeling his head, shoulders, ribs.

I did not raise you, those eyes went on, to cower among the meek beasts of the world.

Knuckles slammed into his chin, split the inside of his lip. Blood welled in his mouth. The taste made him hungry.

You are a hunter, she insisted. A predator.

A vision washed over him that was not a vision but a memory—of racing naked through the rushes, a spear in his hand, running down a jaguar, leaping on the wounded animal, driving the point in at the neck, feeling the hot blood wash over his hands…

He shook his head weakly.

No. I am a priest of Eira.

She bared her teeth. These three will kill you.

Then they will kill me, he replied. Love is not love that answers only to its own voice.

She watched him a moment longer, lip twisted in disgust, then turned away.

He opened his eyes. Rain and blood smeared his sight, but he could see the people of Dombang passing back and forth over the bridge just a few paces away, all of them bent to their business against the storm, all of them ignoring the three drivers and the battered man hanging from their grip. In Dombang, blindness was a shield. To see the violence was to risk being swept up in it.

Ruc wondered if the drivers would kill him. It was slow work, beating a man to death with nothing more than your fists, and they weren’t attacking the most lethal spots—the throat, the eyes, the center of the chest. Still, he could feel his ribs flexing beneath every blow. If they kept hitting him, one of those ribs would break, then another, then another. Eventually the jagged edges would lacerate something inside of him—his lungs or liver, maybe—and he would die.

Better, though, to die like a man, than to survive like some mindless beast.

Thank you, Eira, he murmured as Striker sunk another blow into his guts. Thank you goddess. Thank you for this patience.

The goddess, as usual, did not respond.

From out of the throng crossing the bridge, however, another voice rose, high and bright and angry, a voice he knew even better than his own.

“Stop it!”

Ruc’s stomach sickened.

Stop right now.”

Striding out of the crowd came Bien Qui Nai, priestess of Eira, black hair lacquered to her head by the rain, face streaming, vest drenched, one bare arm extended, as though she could pull Ruc free of the danger with her outstretched hand. No doubt she’d left the temple that morning with a waxed parasol. No doubt she’d seen someone—an orphan, or a beggar, or some old drunk down on his luck—and given it away. She’d spent a lifetime giving things away.

Don’t, he tried to say, but the word came out as a mouthful of half-clotted blood.

Screamer narrowed his eyes. Striker paused in his abuse, then turned slowly.

“Let him go,” Bien said, shouldering Striker out of the way, then seizing Ruc by the arm, trying to wrest him from Screamer’s grip.

She was a full head shorter than the shortest of the men. Striker could have lifted her by the waist and tossed her over the railing into the current below, but for a moment the men just stared. Shock could do that. Ruc had watched mud rats freeze, transfixed by the sight of a snake slithering out from between the rushes. Unfortunately, the divers weren’t mud rats, and Bien was no venomous snake.

“It’s alright,” Ruc managed weakly.

Bien shook her head. “Nothing about this is alright.”

“They lost friends…”

“And that gives them the right to seize an innocent man? To beat him unconscious?”

“I’m not unconscious.”

Or innocent, he added silently.

Shaking off his surprise at last, Striker took Bien by a shoulder, turned her to face him.

“What’s he to you?”

“He is a human being,” Bien declared, her voice trembling with outrage.

Ruc couldn’t tell if she left out the rest of it—We share a temple, a god, a past, sometimes a bed—because it was no business of the drivers’, or because she understood that her love for him would only spur them to greater brutality.

Striker laughed. “This is Dombang. The main thing human beings do in Dombang is die.”

“If he dies, it will be because you killed him.”

“So what if we kill him?” Screamer sneered. “The Three will welcome the sacrifice.”

Ruc pictured the gods of the delta plucking him from the current, laying his waterlogged body on the mud flats. It was hard to imagine them feeling anything but disgust. Disgust at his unbloodied knuckles, at the lack of flesh clenched between his teeth, at the absence of any sign of struggle, at the obvious fact that had not fought back.

Bien shook her head. “This is not sacrifice.”

“Why not?” Striker asked, his voice suddenly, dangerously quiet.

“What do the gods want with a washed-up corpse?”

“When I was a child,” Striker replied, “my father saved his coin for years. Ten years? Twelve? Fifteen? I don’t know. He’d been saving since before I was born, skimping on food, wearing the same clothes that were more holes than cloth, and you know why?”

Ruc could guess. All stories had the same ending if you followed them long enough.

“It was so that he could buy a slave,” the man continued. “A pale-skinned Annurian boy of fourteen or fifteen. For the price of that slave my father could have rented us new rooms. He could have sent me and my brother to the Annurian school down by the Pot. He could have purchased medicine for the lung rot that was killing my mother, but he didn’t. He bought the slave, and then he borrowed a boat, took the slave out into the delta, slit his throat, and rolled him over into the water.

“‘The Three will bless us now,’ he said. It was the only time in my life I’d ever seen him smile.

“‘This is a great offering,” he said.

“He spent his fortune to make that sacrifice. Risked being caught and hanged by our Annurian oppressors in order to make that sacrifice.” Striker cocked his head to the side, studied Bien through slitted eyes. “Are you saying the gods didn’t want it? Are you calling my father a fool?”

“Where is he now?” Ruc asked from between split lips. “Your father?”

Striker shifted his gaze from Bien. “Dead. Crushed on a drive.”

“It doesn’t sound as though the gods heard his prayers,” Bien snapped.

“Maybe that’s because,” Striker replied, taking her by the throat, “my father didn’t sacrifice enough.”

Ruc felt his own throat tighten as he watched.

His own beating he could endure. Perhaps even his own death, if that was what Eira required. He would not, however, stand by and watch the men kill Bien. Not even for the goddess of love.

“There’s no need…” he began quietly.

Screamer cuffed him over the head, but the man looked troubled.

“I don’t reckon we’ve got to beat the girl,” he said, then jerked Ruc by the tattooed wrist. “This one’s a mud sucker, but she’s just…”

“She is just defending the mud sucker,” Striker replied grimly. “Defending him while she mocks my father.”

Bien struggled to reply, but the driver had her too tightly by the throat. She managed to drag in half a gasping breath as her brown skin darkened to a sick purple.

“Please don’t do that,” Ruc murmured. “Like your friend said—she has nothing to do with this.”

“She does now,” Striker waved a hand at the bridge. “How many people have walked by while we’ve been here?

Ruc didn’t reply. Screamer was distracted. His grip on Ruc’s wrist had loosened. Just behind him, leaning against the railing of the bridge, were the pair of steel ring dogs he’d been carrying, each the length of Ruc’s forearm, each ending in a vicious hook. A driver could plunge those hooks a hand deep into green timber. It wasn’t hard to imagine what they’d do buried in someone’s eye. Not hard at all to imagine the puncture and twist, the spray of hot blood, the dying spasm, then the weight as the body dropped.

And Ruc could do one better than imagining it. He could remember…

“Hundreds of people,” Striker went on, answering his own question. “Hundreds have walked by, without a single one sticking their nose in our business.”

Bien’s eyes bulged. Her lips were beginning to swell. She reached out to paw weakly at Striker’s arm, then let her hands fall. She was still conscious, but not for much longer.

Ruc felt old instincts uncoiling inside him, so many snakes stirring after years of hibernation. According to Eira’s teachings, he should meet even this violence with compassion and understanding. He could plead for Bien’s life, but the faith forbade him raising a hand to save it. Priests had been martyred because they refused to fight back against their attackers. Their forbearance was praised in the commentaries on the Teachings:

Hudebraith understood, as few have understood, that it is a simple thing to love a person who treats you with love. He went further. Even as the Urghul slaughtered his children, he absolved them. As they drove the spikes into his hands, he blessed them. When they leaned close to spit in his face, he inclined his head to kiss them. As they hoisted him above the cold steppe to die, he murmured a prayer for them with his final breath.

The thing was, Hudebraith had been a far better priest than Ruc Lakatur Lan Lac.

He took a breath of his own, dragging it down deep into his battered chest, testing the damage. Pain blazed through his flesh, but beneath the pain, waiting patiently for his command, lay all the old strength and rage. He remembered this feeling well, the stillness before the act, the way he could almost taste what was about to come.

Bien’s watering eyes met his, widened slightly. Her lips twitched, but she had no breath left to plead for the lives of the log drivers.

Ruc felt himself smiling, lips twisting back from his blood-smeared teeth.

Sometimes a man needed to be the answer to his own prayers.

Forgive me, goddess, he murmured silently.

Just as he was about to surge to his feet, however, a clamor erupted in the crowd beyond. The people who had been scuttling back and forth across the bridge with quick steps and downcast eyes had begun to slow and cry out. For a moment, Ruc thought someone had noticed them after all, that the citizens of the city, for once in their lives, had caught sight of the unfolding violence and decided not to pass by. Then he realized that no one was pointing in his direction after all, no one was peeling off from the crowd to stop the man who held Bien’s neck in his fist. Instead, they were gesturing toward something else, a figure barely glimpsed through the shifting bodies and sheets of rain.

Ruc caught snatches of conversation:

A foreigner…

…Pale as milk…

…Annurian…

…Offer him to the gods…

Silence narrowed his eyes.

Striker frowned, turned to study the gathering crowd, chewed on the inside of his cheek a moment, then, with a gesture so casual it was hard to believe a life had hung in the balance, tossed Bien aside.

Her legs folded beneath her. She sprawled out across the deck like a bundle of wet rags, choking on air like a fish dragged from the current.

“What’s going on?” Screamer demanded, craning his neck to see over the throng.

“Something interesting, sounds like,” Striker replied. “Maybe some Annurian scum hooked from the water.”

Screamer nodded to Ruc. “What about him?”

Striker sucked at something stuck in his teeth, cocked his head to the side, then slammed a final fist into Ruc’s gut.

“He’s nothing,” the man said as Ruc doubled over, puking blood onto the bridge. “Just a filthy mud sucker without any fight in him. Let’s go.”

And just like that, it was over.

The log drivers hefted their tools and strode off into the crowd, leaving Ruc and Bien huddled at the edge of the bridge. Ten years ago, he might have been surprised. It might have seemed strange that men could forget their murderous intent in the space of a few breaths, distracted by the sight of a crowd and a fragment of chatter. The revolution, however, had been a lesson in the caprice of human violence. Unlike a jaguar, which would stalk its prey until the kill was made or lost, people followed less steady instincts. A man who drew his knife over some imaginary slight might kill with it, or he might not. There were a thousand channels leading to slaughter, and a thousand channels leading away, and as far as Ruc could tell, people floated them at the mercy of currents they barely understood. A creature that killed without reason could forget that killing just as easily.

As the three men disappeared, Ruc felt a quick twist of regret. The ache in his chest was not just pain, but loss. A part of him had wanted to fight, to open up those sons of bitches from throat to gut, to see their insides spilled across the bridge, roped intestines glistening…

He forced the thought savagely aside.

“I am a priest of Eira,” he growled to himself, “not a beast of the delta.”

Despite the heat he poured into the words, they felt fickle on his tongue, false.

If there is no love in your heart, make it with your hands.

He crossed painfully to Bien, took her head in those hands, shifted her gently so that she leaned against him. He felt the warmth of her soak into him with the blood and the rain.

“They,” she said, her voice ragged, “were such assholes.”

He coughed up a chuckle.

“They were just men.”

“What did they want?”

He shook his head. What did men ever want?

“You are also an asshole,” she added, glaring at him as her strength returned.

“Because I got hit?”

“Because you didn’t run.”

He smiled down into her face. “I was practicing loving my enemies.”

“An asshole and an idiot.”

He shook his head again. “I prayed to the goddess. She sent you.”

Bien reached up, took him by the back of the neck, drew his face down to hers, kissed him softly on the lips.

“Truly,” he murmured, “the Lady of Love is great.”

“We should go back to the temple,” she replied, pushing him away at last, rising unsteadily to her feet. “Have someone tend to your wounds.”

She touched his split brow, frowned.

“They’ll heal.” He gestured toward the crowd gathered at the top of the bridge. “I want to see what’s happening.”

Bien took an unsteady breath. “It’s not safe to be out today. After the Baths… things are dangerous.”

“It’s Dombang.”

She hesitated, then nodded.

Ruc was tall, almost a full head taller than most of the people, but he couldn’t see much except heads and parasols as he approached the top of the bridge. Two or three hundred people had gathered, but judging from the muttered questions of those around him, most had been drawn in by the simple fact of the crowd itself.

“It’s a sympathizer,” crowed an old woman to his right. “He helped the imperial bastards attack!”

She was half Ruc’s size, couldn’t have seen much more than backs and asses, but she waggled an authoritative finger toward the mob. “No end to those rats. Yesterday they hung one from Thum’s Bridge.” She cackled. “Heard he danced half the morning before quieting down.”

Ruc ignored her, threaded his way forward, Bien half a step behind. Finally, near the crown of the bridge, the crowd ended abruptly, as though someone had drawn a line across the decking that no one dared to cross.

On the other side of that line a man had leapt up onto the wide railing. Not Dombangan—that much was obvious at a glance. His skin was far too pale, and his eyes, and his hair, which was brown rather than black, and hung in luxurious waves down his back. He might have been Annurian—the empire counted pale-skinned people among its citizens—but he wasn’t a soldier.

An Annurian soldier would have been fighting or cringing or trying to flee; this man stood atop the railing as though he owned it, face split with a smile, arms spread to welcome the crowd. A soldier would have been armed, but the figure at the center of the crowd had no weapons. He was in fact, entirely naked, lean muscles slick with the rain…

No, Ruc realized, not entirely naked.

He wore something around his throat, a wide collar cinched tight, the kind of thing a rich woman might purchase for her dog. This man, however, didn’t bear himself like a creature collared or kept. If anything, he gazed out over the assembled crowd, the men and women who would in all likelihood tear him apart, as though they in some obscure way already belonged to him.

Chapter Four

Having achieved his perch above the rushing water, the pale-skinned foreigner spread his arms, fixed his gaze on the crowd, then said nothing, as though his naked, well-muscled presence were the only message necessary.

People in Dombang were used to seeing human skin. Bathing was a daily ritual almost as important as eating. Public bathhouses dotted the city. Kids swam naked in the canals, and fishers thought nothing about stripping their clothes after a day’s labor, then scrubbing clean in the current. From any deck or dock at almost any time of day, you could probably find someone in some state of undress, and yet there was something different about this man, something flagrant. He wore his nakedness like a statement, a challenge.

“Oh my…” Bien murmured as she ran her gaze over his body.

Love of the flesh is a shallow love…” Ruc said, quoting from the Fifth Teaching.

She glanced over at him. “Remind me of that the next time you come scratching at my door.” When she turned back to the foreigner, however, her face darkened. “People aren’t going to put up with him standing there for long.”

It was true.

For the moment, the crowd remained didn’t move beyond gawking and muttering. The sight was so strange, so incongruous, so unexpected, that the man had, for the moment, failed to ignite the distrust and rage of the people staring at him. He might have been some exotic animal—a bear, or a moose—rather than a human being. That fact that he was naked and silent only reinforced the impression, but he did not remain silent for long.

Even as Ruc studied him, the morning gongs began tolling through the city, first just one bronze, then ten, then hundreds, until the sodden air shook with the sound. It drowned out the rain on the bridge, the surging of the current below, the voices of the individuals in the crowd. The stranger tilted back his head as though he were basking in the noise. The thick rope looped around his neck seemed to twitch, as though it were alive. Then, when the sky finally shivered itself still, he began to speak.

“Hail, people of Dombang.”

“Hail?” Ruc shook his head. “Who says hail?”

“Dead men in books,” Bien replied.

“And evidently the people wherever he comes from.”

She frowned. “What accent is that?”

Again, Ruc shook his head. The words were clear enough, but the syllables drained strangely from one into the next, as though poured from vessel to vessel.

“Hail,” the man continued, “my brethren in faith! Hail, tenders of the ancient flame!”

He smiled as he spoke, ran his gaze over the crowd with the ease of a speaker confident of his reception.

“Hail, worshippers of the Three!”

An uneasy ripple ran through the crowd. Dombang had rebelled against imperial control just five years earlier over that exact worship. In most corners of the empire, Annur allowed the local religious traditions, even encouraged them. At least that was what the sailors had insisted, when sailors were still welcome in the city. Ruc had never set foot outside of the delta, but those men talked about shrines on Basc to the twin gods of storm, idols carved into the stone of the Broken Bay, temples grown from living trees near the mouth of the Baivel River where villagers laid offerings to the spirits of the wood. They weren’t Annurian gods, these woods spirits and stone idols, but the empire tolerated them. Legionaries didn’t smash the statues and burn the shrines. They didn’t hang people for murmuring the sacred names.

“Why,” Ruc had asked a priest once, when he was younger and dumber, still just a child struggling to stitch together a world that seemed broken into opposing halves, “do the Annurians let the Bascans have their gods, and the Breatans, and the Raaltans, but not the people of Dombang? Why do they hate the Three?”

“Because,” the man said, setting a kindly hand on his shoulder, “to worship the Three, one must become a murderer.”

That single sentence, offered so casually, had been a cold knife sliding through Ruc’s guts.

It only confirmed what he knew already. The protest rose in him anyway, like some kind of reflex.

“It’s not murder. It’s sacrifice.”

“There is nothing sacred,” the priest replied gravely, “in dragging the sick or orphaned or drunk into the delta and leaving them to die.”

“That has nothing to do with the Three. The Three don’t want sick people or kids. They want warriors to hunt, to fight.”

The priest shook his head, regarded Ruc with sad eyes. “You were too long among the Vuo Ton, my child. Their faith, like the old faith of this city, is no faith at all, but hatred, violence, blood. The Three are not real. Kem Anh, Sinn, Hang Loc—they’re just names people gave a long time ago to the worst sides of themselves, the ugly parts, their desire to hurt, to humiliate, to murder.”

You’re wrong, Ruc wanted to say. They’re not just names, and they’re not ugly. They’re so beautiful that it hurts to look at them.

But if he said that, the priest might ask more, might ask how he was so certain, and Ruc had no words to frame the answers. All he had were his memories, hundreds of them, thousands, of Kem Anh’s golden eyes as she held him at her breast; of Hang Loc cracking a snake’s skull, peeling back the scales, plucking out the tenderest portion—the eyes—then popping them one by one into Ruc’s tiny, eager mouth; of the two of them kneeling in the soft mud to plant river violets in the skulls; of the rise and fall of their bodies as he slept between them, warmed by the heat of their flesh.

You’re wrong, he wanted to say.

But, of course, the priest was not wrong. Alongside the memories of flowers and light stalked the other memories, the indelible visions of the things those gods had done, that they had taught him to do, that drove him from the delta in the first place. He felt his face hot with sunlight and splattered blood, his fingers tight around the knife…

“It is love that makes us human, son,” the priest said.

And Ruc, child of the city and the delta both, had doubted those words almost as much as he believed them.

The priest died a few years after that conversation, which was probably lucky for him. The revolution turned the old world on its head. What had been profane for two hundred years became sacred once more, while the sacred became unsayable. If the priest had lived, if he had dared to spread his message in the streets of Dombang after the overthrow of the empire, he would have been torn to pieces by an angry mob for his blasphemy, emissary of love or not. Eira’s temple and her priests had weathered the uprising and its aftermath in large part by avoiding all talk of Annur, of the larger pantheon of Annurian gods, and of the Three. It was a wise strategy for any foreigner who had survived the purges and wanted to keep surviving.

Evidently no one had informed the naked man atop the bridge.

“Dombang alone,” he continued, “among all the cities of this land, remembers something of the old ways, the ways of tooth and fist, flower and bone.”

That earned him a little wary applause. It was a tricky situation. No one wanted to be seen supporting a foreigner, but, on the other hand, this particular foreigner seemed to be praising both the Three and the virtue of those who worshipped them. It could be wise to support such a declaration, to be seen supporting it. Even as they stared, most of the people in the crowd slid expressions of neutral disinterest down over their faces like masks. The high priests of the city had spies on every street, and even if they hadn’t, the revolution taught one lesson above all others: your neighbors are always watching.

“Dombang alone remembers the rhythms of the land and the truth of the testing. It is here still, if only faintly.”

Bien shook her head. “Don’t say faintly,” she murmured.

“Probably don’t say anything,” Ruc added.

“I, Valaka Jarva, rashkta-bhura of the Slice of Dawn, first axochlin of my family,” here he touched with two fingers the strange collar circling his throat, “am come before you with a greeting, a reminder, and a warning.” He spread his arms as though inviting the whole of Dombang into his embrace. “The greeting is this: Hail. Hail from he who holds us in his fist, who dreams the world into being. Hail from Nactcayl, your once and future lord.”

Mutters and questions rippled through the crowd. The man spoke clearly enough, but half the words were nonsense. Rashkta-bhura? Axochlin?

“What,” someone demanded finally, “is a nactcayl?”

The man’s smile grew.

“I was told you had forgotten, and so my reminder: you have lived before, people of Dombang. You have lived and lost a thousand thousand lives. You have lived and you have forgotten, but Nactcayl will open your minds. He will fill you with the truth of what you have been and what you will be, and when you see, you people of Dombang, you keepers of the old ways, you will join us in serving his great and holy purpose.”

The mutters rose to growls of displeasure.

More voices and louder sprouted from the mob, like traitor’s heart flowers after a hard rain.

“Fuck your great and noble truth.”

“…Annurian pig…”

“Dombang bows before none but the Three!”

The messenger—Valaka Jarva—nodded as though he had expected this outburst, as though all the men and women gathered on the bridge were children bent on some small folly. He raised a hand.

“The Three are worthy of your worship, but they are not all. Nactcayl is of the Three and above them, beyond them. They are to him as the moon beside the sun. He is coming, people of Dombang, and you will see that he is like to those that you revere, but stronger, faster, wiser, more.”

Bien took Ruc by the elbow. “We need to get him out of here.”

Ruc glanced down at her. “How do you plan to do that?”

“I don’t know,” she replied, shoving her way forward through the rings of the crowd, “but he’s about ten sentences away from having his tongue nailed to that railing.”

All things considered, ending up with a nail through the tongue seemed like an optimistic outcome for the messenger. Ruc had seen men and women flayed during the Annurian purges, lashed to bridge pilings and left for the floods, cut into dozens of pieces and used as chum for the croc hunters. Things could go a lot worse than losing a tongue. They could, and, judging from the shifting temper of the crowd, they were about to.

Ruc and Bien weren’t the only people pushing toward the railing. The human bodies on the bridge might all have been part of one great snake, twisting tighter and tighter around its quarry. The only reason the idiot was still up there at all was that, despite the mounting outrage, no one had yet gathered the courage to strike the first blow. The restraint of the mob would last until it didn’t. When it collapsed, it would collapse utterly.

“Move,” Bien shouted as she shoved her way forward. “Get out of the way.”

A short, wiry man—a fisher, judging from his clothes—shot her an irritated glance. “Wait your turn. We all want a piece of the bastard.”

Not all of us, Ruc thought grimly, lifting the fisher as gently as he could, wincing at the pain in his ribs, then setting him aside.

“Hey!” Bien shouted when she was just a few paces away. “Hey!

She waved her hands over her head.

Valaka Jarva turned, met her gaze, nodded to her as though she were some petitioner come to beg a favor. He seemed oblivious to the fury burning through the crowd, as though his own violent demise were a possibility he’d never bothered considering.

“Get down,” Bien shouted, pointing toward the bridge. “They’re going to kill you.”

Ruc stifled a curse, took Bien by the shoulder. “There’s no way to do this,” he said, careful to keep his voice low. “It’s too late. You’ve already saved one idiot today.”

She shoved his hand away. “Love the meek…”

“He’s not all that fucking meek. He’s been standing naked on a railing shouting at anyone who will listen that he serves the world’s greatest and most holy purpose.”

“Love those on whom the world heaps hatred, the outcast and the shunned…”

Shunning is a colossal understatement for what these people are about to do to him. And to you, too, if you’re helping him when they take him down.”

He’d almost seen her killed once that morning. He wasn’t ready to see it again.

The bridge shook beneath the weight of the stamping feet. Hundreds of angry voices carved their fury on the stormy sky. A forest of raised fists had grown up around Ruc and Bien, all clenched to bursting. When he ran his gaze over the crowd, he almost couldn’t see the faces for the rage-red heat burning from the skin.

Bien rounded on him. Tears stood in her eyes.

“What will we be?” she demanded, “if we don’t try to help this man?”

There were hundreds of possible answers, thousands. We’ll be alive, Ruc wanted to say. We’ll be servants of Eira instead of food for the fish.

It was impossible to rescue every single person. Tens of thousands had died during the revolution while Ruc and Bien did nothing to save them. In the delta, he had learned one lesson very early: there was a time to fight, and a time to flee. A rush wren felt no shame taking to the air at the passage of a snake. Even a croc would retreat at the sight of a jaguar. Bred into the flesh of every bird and beast was a single, simple unalterable law: survive. No animal would risk its life for an unknown creature, but then, that was Bien’s point: she was not an animal, and despite his childhood, neither was Ruc.

“Finally,” the messenger declared, “my warning.” His gaze went stern. “If you insist on your forgetting, if you smear mud over your eyes, if you turn your backs on the truth…” He took a deep breath, seemed to fill with fury and regret, then shook his head. “If you deny him, he will destroy you all and utterly. He will take you apart as he has taken apart so many and so much greater than you, and you will wake in your next lives as grubs and worms, the meanest creatures ever to creep in terror through the wide spaces of the world.”

Even as the messenger finished speaking, a massive man surged forward out of the crowd—Striker, Ruc realized—his eyes on the stranger, lips twisted into a vicious smile. With a desperate cry, Bien hurled herself in front of him. The chaos saved her. In the crush and rain and swelling sound, no one could tell what she was trying to do. She might as well have been just one more citizen driven forward by righteous rage. The thought that she might be shielding the stranger with her body would have seemed insane.

Striker didn’t even glance down at her—another stroke of luck—just cursed and shoved her roughly aside. Bien fell, but instead of giving up, she wrapped herself around his leg like a child looking for a ride, indifferent to the fact that this was the man who had strangled her nearly to death not much earlier.

It might have been the dumbest, bravest thing that Ruc had ever seen; Eira seized him by the throat, the grip of love’s goddess stronger than any need for survival.

He shrugged off the people pressing in around him, shucked away his own pain, ducked under Striker’s extended weapon, and, with the fury of the crowd pelting down around him, hurled himself at the man on the railing of the bridge. The priests of Eira knew nothing of hunting, nothing of tracking, or stalking, or leaping, but Ruc had not been raised from an infant by the priests of Eira.

He hit the man with his shoulder, knocking the wind from him, folding him neatly in half, then wrapped him close in his arms as they fell away from the murderous mob into the raging current below.

The Empire’s Ruin (Ashes of the Unhewn Throne, Book 1) by Brian Staveley will be published on 8 August, 2021 in hardback for £16.99.