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The Emperor's Blades

By´╝ÜBrian Staveley

PROLOGUE

Rot. It was the rot, Tan’is reflected as he stared down into his daughter’s eyes, that had taken his child.

Screams and imprecations, pleading and sobbing shivered the air as the long lines of prisoners filled the valley. The scent of blood and urine thickened in the noon heat. Tan’is ignored it all, focusing instead on the face of this daughter of his who knelt, clutching at his knees. Faith was a woman grown now, thirty years and a month. At a casual glance she might have passed as healthy—bright gray eyes, lean shoulders, strong limbs—but the Csestriim no longer bore healthy children, not for centuries.

“Father,” the woman begged, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Those tears, too—a symptom of the rot.

There were other words for it, of course. The children, in their ignorance or innocence, called the affliction age, but in this, as in so much else, they erred. Age was not decrepitude. Tan’is himself was old, hundreds of years old, and yet his sinews remained strong, his mind nimble—if needed, he could run all day, all night, and the better part of the next day. Most of the Csestriim were older still, thousands upon thousands of years, and yet they continued to walk the earth, those who had not fallen in the long wars with the Nevariim. No; time passed, stars swung through their silent arcs, seasons gave way one to the next, and yet none of these, in and of itself, brought harm. It was not age but rot that gnawed at the children, consuming their bowels and brains, sapping strength, eroding what meager intelligence they once possessed. Rot, and then death.

“Father,” Faith pleaded, unable to proceed past that single word.

“Daughter,” Tan’is replied.

“You don’t…,” she gasped, glancing over her shoulder toward the ditch, toward where the doran’se went about their work, steel flashing in the sunlight. “You can’t…”

Tan’is cocked his head to the side. He had tried to understand this daughter of his, tried to understand all the children. Though he was no healer, as a soldier he had learned long ago to tend shattered bones and ruptured skin, to treat the festering flesh that came from a soiled wound or the racking coughs of men too long in the field. And yet this … he could no more comprehend the nature of this decay than he could cure it.

“It has you, daughter. The rot has you.”

He reached down and ran a finger along the creases in Faith’s forehead, sketched the delicate tracery of lines beside her eyes, lifted a slender filament of silver hair from the brown locks. Just a few decades of sun and wind had already begun to roughen her smooth olive skin. He had wondered, when she first burst from between her mother’s thighs, strong-lunged and screaming, if perhaps she might grow up unscathed. The question had intrigued him, and now it was answered.

“It touches you gently,” he pointed out, “but its grip will grow stronger.”

“And so you have to do this?” she exploded, jerking her head desperately toward the freshly turned earthen ditch. “This is what it comes to?”

Tan’is shook his head. “It was not my decision. The council voted.”

“Why? Why do you hate us?”

“Hate?” he replied. “That is your word, child, not ours.”

“It’s not just a word. It describes a feeling, a real thing. A truth about the world.”

Tan’is nodded. He had heard such arguments before. Hate, courage, fear. Those who thought the rot an affliction merely of the flesh understood nothing. It corroded the mind as well, rusting the very foundations of thought and reason.

“I grew from your seed,” Faith continued, as though that followed logically from what came before. “You fed me when I was small!”

“This is the way of many creatures: wolves, eagles, horses. When they are young, dependent, all must rely on their progenitors.”

“Wolves, eagles, and horses protect their children!” she protested, weeping openly now, clawing at the backs of his legs. “I’ve seen it! They guard and tend, feed and nurture. They raise their young.” She reached a trembling, imploring hand toward her father’s face. “Why will you not raise us?”

“Wolves,” Tan’is replied, brushing away his daughter’s hand, “raise their young to be wolves. Eagles, eagles. You—,” he continued, frowning once more, “we have raised you, but you are broken. Polluted. Compromised. You can see it for yourself,” he said, gesturing to the hunched, defeated forms that stood waiting at the rim of the pit—hundreds of them, just waiting. “Even without this, you would die on your own, and soon.”

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