To help promote the release of Mazarkis Williams' latest, Knife Sworn (Canada, USA, Europe), as well as the trade paperback release of The Emperor's Knife (Canada, USA, Europe), here's an exclusive extract from the second installment.
Here's the blurb for Knife Sworn:
After a lifetime locked in his tower room, Sarmin has come into his own. He is the crowned emperor; he has wed Mesema of the horse tribes; the Pattern- Master is dead. Everything should be happy ever-after.
But war ignites in the north, and in the palace, Sarmin’s new baby brother is seen as a threat to Mesema’s unborn child. Scheming courtiers surround the Petal Throne, and when a peace envoy is invited, their plots blossom. Sarmin has no royal assassin as proof against their treachery: no one to whom he can give the twisted Knife.
Those whom Sarmin saved from the Pattern- Master’s curse, unsure how to live without the Many, turn to Mogyrk, the god of their ancient foe, for comfort. And Sarmin has not been left alone: the remnants of the Many haunt his thoughts; he hears their voices in the darkness of his room. The worst damage left by the Pattern-Master is about to take Sarmin unawares…
Sarmin paced, fifteen by twenty, fifteen by twenty. The tower that held him safe for seventeen years offered no comfort. The walls where Aherim and the others once hid now lay pitted, and dust bled from the scars Mesema had left there, covering his old books with a layer of grey. Whorls of ink and shadow had both hidden and revealed the angels who lived in his room, and the demons. It had taken years to find them. Now Sarmin stared at crumbling plaster and broken lines.
His old bed, stripped down to wood and ropes, did not invite. The mattress, soaked with blood from when Grada stabbed him, had been taken away and burned. Broken plaster bit through his silk slippers. A jagged tooth of alabaster jutted from the window frame. Grada had smashed his window, opened his eyes to the world. The shard threw yellow light upon his right foot, then his left. He came to the edge of the room and turned.
One room. Seventeen years. Safe years.
—You were never safe.
Sarmin squinted at the broken wall but it was not Aherim who had spoken. When the sun fell a sea of voices rose from some dark infinity. The Many he had saved he had returned to their own flesh, and now they shivered lonely in it. The Many beyond saving still rested with Sarmin. Those whose bodies would no longer receive them—their flesh perhaps too torn to hold a spirit, or the spirit too changed to fit in that which had once contained it. At night they raised their voices.
Sundown had arrived, but a different kind of clock spelled out this day. Mesema had screamed. They tried to shut the door, tried to hush her, but he’d heard it. Her time was upon her; Beyon’s child would be born this night, beneath a scorpion sky. Sarmin had tried to see her, but too easily he had let them turn him away. Women’s work, Magnificence. Women’s work. And an emperor had been turned aside by Old Wives.
And so he had come here, to search one more time for Aherim.
His fingers fell upon the old table where he’d carved the pattern. Tried to save his brother. None of them had seen this future in the pattern. Had Helmar?
Women die in childbirth every day. Someone had said that to him as if it were a comfort. The rough-carved shapes writhed beneath his fingers, but they were his to alter and cheat, not to command. That spell had been Helmar’s, and Helmar was dead. Another spare branch of the family tree pruned away, albeit belatedly.
“Aherim. Show yourself.”
He searched for a pattern. Two eyes together. A nose and a mouth beneath them. “Will she die, Aherim?”
He saw nothing.
“Zanasta?” Always the last to reveal himself.
Gone. Mesema herself had cast Zanasta out and now he would not help her.
Below the window and to the left an area of the old decoration lay untouched, a tangle of dense calligraphy that had yielded no face in all the long days of Sarmin’s inspection, no voice, only confusion mixed with beauty. He went to it now, set his fingers to the fabric, traced the scroll of the lines written out in black and in deepest blue.
“She comes.” Sarmin jerked his hand back, fingertips stung. The voice had rung through him, spilled from his mouth. “Who?” he whispered. His hand didn’t want to return to the wall; the ache of it ran in each tendon. Even so he set his fingers to the pattern once more. None of the angels ever spoke with such authority. Not even Aherim. Of all the devils even Zanasta never chilled him so. “Who comes?” Only silence and the defiant complexity, as if the artist had written in knots rather than script. “A daughter? Our child will be a girl?”
“She comes.” Again the shock but Sarmin forced his hand to maintain the contact. A jagged line tore his vision. Mountain tops. The sun sinking behind serrated ridges of stone.
“Who?” Sarmin demanded it but the voice kept silent. “Who?”
A knocking brought him back to himself. It repeated.
“My Emperor?” Azeem’s voice from outside.
The door-handle turned. From long habit Sarmin ignored it. His guards had always checked the door, but never entered. Now the hinges creaked and silk rustled as Azeem entered the room. He took silent stock of the ruined walls and broken window before touching his forehead to the floor.
Sarmin gathered himself. “How is my wife, Azeem? The child?”
Azeem leaned back, onto the balls of his feet. “I know nothing of the women’s hall,” he said. “I have other news.”
Sarmin looked down upon the courtyard where his brothers had died. “Then tell it.”
Azeem stood now. Sarmin without looking imagined him smoothing the silk of his robe, brushing the plaster dust from its folds.
—He will betray you—the boys, where are the boys?—so much blood—I’m frightened.
—Be quiet, all of you.
After several moments Azeem said, “Govnan’s mage whispers upon the wind: the peace embassy from Fryth draws near.”
“Such magics.” Sarmin turned and met the vizier’s gaze. Azeem looked away. “Such powers exerted that men might talk across miles.” Fryth was the outermost colony of Yrkmir, the closest corner of its empire, and yet still so far.
“Battles can turn on such a thing. Wars can be won because a message was lost, or heard.” Azeem laced his fingers, perhaps not trusting himself not to fidget.
“And yet when we stand face to face we have so little to say to each other.”
“Even so,” Azeem said, eyes on his hands. He wore no rings on those long dark fingers.
“Let us hope a peace can turn on the right words at the right time.”
Azeem bent his head in agreement. “Indeed we must move carefully. With victory so close Arigu was not pleased to call a truce, and he has many allies in Nooria.”
Arigu’s pleasure mattered nothing. A truce would be had. Sarmin’s messengers had been stopped by snow in the passes, unable to reach Fryth and prevent the general from launching his attack. Now too many people had died. Sarmin felt each one as a loss, a shape removed from a pattern. He spoke the words he had meant to keep behind his lips. “Let us hope my council understands Arigu better than I, for in truth I don’t know what he sought through bloodshed.”
“It is the doom of good men that they cannot see what evil men desire, and their salvation that men of evil will not believe it,” Azeem said.
Sarmin returned to the wall, his fingers exploring the ruination. “You were a slave, taken from the Islands.”
“Yes, My Emperor.” A shield of formality raised without hesitation.
“My servant, Ink, is from Olamagh. His true name is Horroluan. He says in that land there are birds brighter and more colourful than peacocks and that they speak like men.”
“Olamagh is to the south, in wild seas where pirates and sharks infest the waters, Magnificence.” Azeem raised his head. “My home was Konomagh, a place of spice trees and old learning. We had no birds that talked.”
“And your name?”
“Was Toralune.” Azeem smiled at some memory.
“Wit and service earned your freedom. My cousin Tuvaini raised you high.”
“I serve at your pleasure, My Emperor. If there is some other better suited I would be honoured to return to my former station. I made a better master of house and coin to Lord Tuvaini than I did a vizier. I think perhaps he wanted me near for the comfort of a familiar face rather than for my skills as a diplomat, which are sadly lacking.
“In the Islands, where even children learn to swim, we have a saying. ‘To be out of one’s depth’—it means to lose the seabed before you have mastered swimming. Tuvaini led me into waters deeper than I am tall and I have never learned to swim.”
Sarmin had to puzzle over “swimming.” In the end he recalled an illustration in The Book of Ways, heads and arms above a sea of waving lines. Swimming. The palace held a deep pool, marble set with gold, where a man might drown, but none swam there.
His fingers returned to the wall. “Did you ever have an imaginary friend, Azeem?”
“I had a real friend, Magnificence, and after he died for many years I imagined his ghost followed me. I would tell him my secrets, and leave him a portion of my food, but he only followed and watched, and could never join in my games.”
“I had an imaginary friend once.” Sarmin raised plaster-white fingers to his face. “Sometimes I think all of my friends have been imaginary.”
Sarmin crossed to his desk and sketched Aherim’s face with a white finger. It didn’t look like Aherim. “Perhaps we can be friends, Azeem?”
The pause spoke the “No” plain enough.
“An emperor cannot afford friends, Magnificence,” Azeem said. In Sarmin’s mind the Many laughed. “Least of all low-born or slave-taken friends. Your flesh is golden, your robe brighter than the sun. The empire requires you that way, needs you that way, and the touch of lesser men sullies you. The touch of the Untouchable—”
“Of Grada. You may say her name.” Sarmin rubbed the chalk face from his desk, an angry motion.
“As high vizier I am little but advice. My advice is to send Grada away, never to return. You have been gifted many concubines—”
Those concubines, gifts from the scheming, whispering lords, might as well have been snakes in Sarmin’s view—no less so for their high status. That was why he had sent Grada to find out about them, Grada whom he trusted, she who had carried him with her.
“Tell me,” he said, stalking closer to the vizier, “how long did it take the palace to turn Toralune to Azeem? Do you remember when and where we taught the Island boy to despise? When our traditions, dry-born of the desert, replaced the sea-born freedoms of the Isles?”
Azeem let the anger run off him. “Traditions are what hold you in your throne, Magnificence.”
“You would not speak so to Beyon.” Nobody would speak an awkward truth to Beyon. Perhaps that was what killed him. “Go now. I’ll speak to you in the other room.”
Azeem made his obeisance and left.
Sarmin had a world of two rooms now. The one room he stood in, and a second, larger room that held everything beyond his doorway. Two rooms, one full of wonders, the other full of dust, and sometimes he felt more trapped than ever he had when fifteen and twenty paces had bound him.
In the other room a child was being squeezed into the world, pushed into it in pain and blood. Mesema would be screaming and yet even the emperor himself could not push past tradition, tear through custom, and see her, offer comfort. Or maybe his own fears held him. In the other room a man could drown. Even an emperor could find himself out of his depth.