Thanks to the cool folks at Tor Books and Tor UK, here's an exclusive excerpt from Brian Staveley's The Emperor's Blades! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
In The Emperor's Blades by Brian Staveley, the emperor of Annur is dead, slain by enemies unknown. His daughter and two sons, scattered across the world, do what they must to stay alive and unmask the assassins. But each of them also has a life-path on which their father set them, destinies entangled with both ancient enemies and inscrutable gods. Kaden, the heir to the Unhewn Throne, has spent eight years sequestered in a remote mountain monastery, learning the enigmatic discipline of monks devoted to the Blank God. Their rituals hold the key to an ancient power he must master before it's too late. An ocean away, Valyn endures the brutal training of the Kettral, elite soldiers who fly into battle on gigantic black hawks. But before he can set out to save Kaden, Valyn must survive one horrific final test. At the heart of the empire, Minister Adare, elevated to her station by one of the emperor's final acts, is determined to prove herself to her people. But Adare also believes she knows who murdered her father, and she will stop at nothing—and risk everything—to see that justice is meted out.
You can download and read the first seven chapters for free here!
I think Tan’s trying to kill me,” Kaden said, straightening up from the bundle of tiles he had just hoisted up onto the dormitory roof and wiping the sweat from his brow.
Down below, Phirum Prumm was hufﬁng with the effort of muscling the next load into place and hitching it to the rope. Kaden’s back and hands ached from the repetitive labor, but compared with the rigors of Rampuri Tan’s training, retiling the roof after the winter ice damage felt like a holiday. At least he could ﬁnd the occasional moment to straighten from his task and knuckle the sore muscles without getting whipped.
“Quit whining,” Akiil retorted, hunkering down to get a good grip on the tiles, then hauling the whole crate up with a grunt. Kaden had no idea how his friend could work with the mop of black curls hanging down over his eyes—by tradition he should have cropped his scalp like the rest of the monks, but a tradition wasn’t exactly a rule, and Akiil was extremely adept at balancing on the ﬁne line between the two. “The ﬁrst month with a new umial is always the worst. Remember when Robert made me carry those stones for the new goat shed down from the Circuit of Ravens?” He groaned at the memory.
“I don’t think this is so bad,” Pater protested as Akiil dropped the bundle at his feet. The boy perched on the roof’s apex, like a small gargoyle set against the austere background of the snowy peaks beyond. He was barely eight, a novice still, and had yet to experience a truly brutal umial. “Of course you don’t,” Akiil responded, pointing an admonitory ﬁnger at the boy. “While the rest of us are lugging and lifting, all you have to do is sit there!”
“I’m placing them,” Pater protested, his brown eyes round and aggrieved. He held up a loose tile by way of demonstration.
“Oh, placing,” Akiil replied, rolling his eyes. “How demanding. My apologies.”
“This is just work,” Kaden pointed out as he wrapped his hands around the thick rope and began to haul. “Since I started with Tan, I haven’t gone a single day without a beating. He’s running out of unbroken skin.”
“Just work?” Akiil demanded, ﬁxing him with an incredulous glare. “Just work? Work is an afﬂiction, my friend, a potentially fatal afﬂiction.” Despite the pain of his wounds, Kaden suppressed a smile. Carrying rocks and hefting tiles probably did feel like murder to Akiil. The young acolyte had been at Ashk’lan as long as Kaden, but the Shin ethic and way of life weren’t rubbing off on him as quickly as many of the older brothers would have liked. Scial Nin, the abbot, and some of the umials held out hope for the youth, but in most ways, he was little changed from the nine-year-old thief who had arrived from the gritty Perfumed Quarter of Annur so many years before.
Kaden had been at Ashk’lan for only a few months when Blerim Panno—the Footsore Monk, they called him—trudged into the main yard, brown robe ripped around the hem but otherwise looking no worse for the long walk from the Bend. The three boys who trailed behind him, however, the three boys who would soon be novices, appeared battered and uncertain. All limped on badly blistered feet, all slumped beneath the weight of the canvas sacks they carried on their backs, and of the three, only Akiil bothered to look around him, those brown eyes of his assessing the cold stone buildings of Ashk’lan with a shrewd gaze that had reminded Kaden of Edur Uriarte, his father’s Minister of Finance. When that gaze landed on him, however, the new boy stiffened, as though pricked by the point of an invisible dagger.
“Who’s he?” Akiil had asked Panno suspiciously, his vowels long and broad, almost incomprehensible to Kaden, who had grown up around the melliﬂuous, aristocratic accent of the imperial court.
“His name is Kaden,” Panno replied. “He is also a novice.”
Akiil had shaken his head. “I know them eyes. He’s some kind of prince or lord or something. Nobody told me there’d be no princes or lords here.” He spat the titles venomously, as though they were curses.
Panno had laid a calm hand on his shoulder. “That’s because there are no princes or lords here. Only Shin. Kaden may have come from the Mal- keenian line and one day he may return to it, but now, here, he is a novice, just like you.”
Akiil measured Panno with his eyes, as though testing the truth of his words. “Meaning he don’t get to boss me around none?”
Kaden had bristled at the suggestion. He wanted to object that he didn’t boss people around even when he wasn’t in a monastery, but Panno replied before he could fashion a retort.
“Here he is learning to obey, not to command.” He turned to Kaden, as if by way of illustration. “Kaden, please run down to the White Pool and fetch some cold fresh water for our brothers. They have walked a good distance since dawn, and must be thirsty.” Kaden had scowled at the injustice of the command, and Akiil, seeing the scowl, smiled his wide, dirty smile. It was not an auspicious start to their friendship.
After eight years, however, an unlikely camaraderie had grown up between the son of the Emperor and the thief from the Perfumed Quarter. As Blerim Panno had promised, the Shin ignored all differences in rank and rearing, and over time it became possible to forget that the parents Akiil had never known were hanged by the law of Kaden’s father, that someday, if they went back to their former lives, Akiil might be put to death at the order of a scroll carrying Kaden’s own sigil.
“Anyway,” Akiil continued, stretching his neck and rubbing a sore forearm, “your sob stories are a heap of pickled pig shit. I don’t see Tan hounding you now.”
“The beneﬁts of group labor,” Kaden replied, passing the next crate of tiles to his friend. “As long as I’m stuck doing monastery work, Tan lets me off from my training.”
“Well,” Akiil said, shoving the load toward Pater and sitting down on the roof with a contented sigh. “I guess we want to stretch this job out as long as we can.”
Kaden looked down into the courtyard. Late afternoon sun illuminated the stone buildings and stunted trees, warm in spite of the patches of dirty snow squirreled away in the corners. A few monks trod the gravel paths, their heads bowed in contemplation, and a pair of stray goats cropped the meager spring shoots in the shadow of the meditation hall, but Scial Nin, who had assigned them to the rooﬁng project, was nowhere to be seen.
“That’s the last of them,” Phirum shouted up from below. “You want me to come up?”
“We’ll take care of it,” Akiil shouted back. “We’re almost done.”
“We are?” Kaden asked, eyeing the remaining crates skeptically, then glancing back down into the courtyard. The Shin provided severe penance for shirkers, although Akiil never seemed to learn that lesson, and Pater was picking up on the older youth’s bad habits.
“Quit looking over your shoulder,” Akiil said, settling back against the dark tiles. “No one’s going to come hunting for us up here.”
“You conﬁdent enough about that to risk a whipping?”
“Of course!” the youth replied, lacing his ﬁngers behind his head and closing his eyes. “It was one of the ﬁrst things I learned back in the Quarter—people never look up.”
Pater scampered down from the crest of the roof, the bundle of tiles forgotten. “Is that Thieves’ Wisdom?” he demanded. “Is it, Akiil?”
Kaden groaned. “Pater, I’ve told you before that ‘Thieves’ Wisdom’ is just a fancy name Akiil gives to his pronouncements. Which are usually wrong, by the way.”
Akiil ﬁxed Kaden with a glare through one half-open eye. “It is Thieves’ Wisdom, Pater. Kaden has just never heard of it because he spent his young life being pampered in a palace. Be thankful you have someone here who is willing to look after your education. Besides,” he added, rushing on before Kaden could protest, “Tan’s been keeping Kaden so busy, we haven’t had a chance to talk to him about the goat he lost.”
Akiil’s words brought the saama’an of the slaughtered goat unbidden to Kaden’s mind, and with it the chill, creeping fear pricking the skin between his shoulder blades. It was sloppy thinking, letting someone else’s words dictate the contents of his thought, and he dismissed both the image and the emotion. Still, the afternoon sun was warm, the breeze carried the sharp scent of the junipers, and it wouldn’t hurt to rest for just a few minutes before searching out his umial once more. After a ﬁnal glance out over the monastery, he settled down onto the tiles beside his friends.
“What do you want to know?” he asked.
“You tell me,” Akiil responded, rolling onto one elbow. “I know the goat was slaughtered. I know you didn’t ﬁnd any tracks—”
“And the brain,” Pater burst in. “Something ate the brain.”
Kaden nodded. He’d been over the events more times than he cared to admit, but couldn’t add much more to the scene. “That’s about it.”
“A leach,” Pater said, shoving between the two youths to gesture with a small but insistent hand. “A leach could have done it!”
Akiil dismissed the absurd suggestion with a lazy wave. “Pater, what would a leach be doing wandering around the Bone Mountains at the ass end of winter?”
“Maybe he’s in hiding. Maybe his neighbors discovered what he was and he had to run away in the night. Maybe he put a kenning on someone,” the boy went on, his expression rapt. “Something really evil, and—”
Akiil chuckled. “And then he came up here to kill a few goats?”
“They do things like that,” the boy insisted. “Eat brains and drink blood and stuff.”
Kaden shook his head. “They do not, Pater. They’re men and women, just the way we are, only . . . twisted somehow.”
“They’re evil!” the small boy exclaimed. “That’s why they have to get hanged or beheaded.”
“They are evil,” Kaden agreed. “And we do have to hang them. But not because they drink blood.”
“They might drink blood,” Akiil suggested unhelpfully, knuckling Pater in the ribs to goad him on.
Again, Kaden shook his head. “We have to hang leaches because they have too much power. No one should be able to twist the fabric of reality to their own ends.” Hundreds of years earlier, the Atmani leach-lords had gone insane and nearly destroyed the world. Whenever Kaden wondered if leaches deserved the loathing and opprobrium heaped upon them, he had only to remember his history. “Only the gods should have that kind of power.”
“Too much power!” Akiil crowed. “Too much power! And this from the person who’s going to be the ’Kent-kissing Annurian Emperor someday.”
Kaden snorted. “According to Tan, I don’t have enough wit in my head to make it as a simple monk.”
“You don’t have to make it as a monk. You’re going to rule half the known world.”
“Maybe,” Kaden responded, doubtfully. The Dawn Palace and the Unhewn Throne felt impossibly far away, a hazily remembered dream from his childhood. For all he knew, his father would rule another thirty years, years Kaden would spend at Ashk’lan hauling water, retiling roofs, and, oh yes, getting beaten by his umial. “I don’t mind the work and the whippings when I feel like it’s all part of some bigger plan. Tan, though . . . I might as well be some sort of insect, for all he cares.”
“You should be happy,” Akiil responded, rolling onto his back and staring up at the scudding clouds. “I’ve worked my ass off my whole life precisely in order to keep the expectations for me low. Low expectations are the key to success.” He started to turn to Pater, but Kaden cut him off.
“That is not more Thieves’ Wisdom,” he said to the boy. Then, turning back to Akiil, “You know what Tan’s had me doing for the past week? Counting. Counting all the stones in all the buildings at Ashk’lan.”
“That’s what you’re complaining about?” Akiil demanded, stabbing a ﬁnger at him. “I was getting harder tasks when I was ten.”
Kaden rolled his eyes. “You always were precocious.”
“No need to show off the big words. Not all of us grew up with a Manjari tutor.”
“Aren’t you the one who claims the only schooling a man needs he can get from a butcher, a sailor, and a whore?”
Akiil shrugged. “The butcher and the sailor are optional.”
Pater had been trying to follow the exchange, head swiveling back and forth with the conversation.
“What’s a whore?” he asked. Then, distracted by his earlier reasoning, “If a leach didn’t kill the goat, what did?”
Kaden saw it all again, the shattered skull, scooped clean.
“I told you, I don’t know.” He looked out across the courtyard, past the stone buildings and the granite ledges to where the sun was sinking toward the endless grasslands of the steppe. “But it’s going to be dark soon, and if I don’t get cleaned up and ﬁnd Tan before dinner, I’m going to ﬁnd myself envying that goat.”
Umber’s Pool wasn’t a proper pool so much as a pocket of rocks half a mile from the monastery where the White River paused, gathering itself in deep, still silence before spilling over a shelf in a dizzying waterfall, tumbling hundreds of feet into a deep ravine before snaking lazily into the steppe far below. After a childhood spent bathing in copper tubs ﬁlled with steaming water by the palace servants, Kaden had been shocked to realize that any washing at Ashk’lan would take place outside, in Umber’s. Over the years, however, he had grown accustomed to it. The water was viciously cold, even in summer; anyone stoic enough to brave it in the win- ter had to hack a hole in the ice with the rusty, long-handled axe that was left between the rocks for just that purpose. Still, after a long day lugging tile beneath the glare of the mountain sun, the water would feel good.
He lingered before entering the pool. It was nice to have a few moments to himself, away from Tan’s discipline, away from Pater’s questions and Akiil’s goading. He stooped to scoop up a clear handful of water then straightened, allowing the icy drink to trickle down the back of his throat while he peered down the vertiginous trail that descended to the foothills and steppe below.
He had last walked that trail eight years ago, craning his skinny neck for a glimpse of his new home, a home that seemed to be perched in mountains so high that their peaks etched the clouds. He had been frightened; frightened of this cold, stone place, and frightened to show his fear. “Why?” he had pleaded with his father before leaving Annur. “Why can’t you teach me about ruling the empire?” Sanlitun’s stern face soft- ened as he replied. “Someday I will, Kaden. I will teach you, as my father taught me, to tell justice from cruelty, boldness from folly, friends from fawning sycophants. When you return, I will teach you to make the hard decisions through which a boy becomes a man. But there are other lessons you must learn ﬁrst, lessons of the greatest importance, and these I cannot teach you. These, you must learn from the Shin.”
“But why?” Kaden had begged. “They don’t rule an empire. They don’t even rule a kingdom. They rule nothing!”
His father smiled cryptically, as though the boy had made some kind of clever joke. Then the smile was gone and he was taking his son’s wrist in the strong handshake men called the soldier’s clasp. Kaden did his best to return the gesture, although his ﬁngers were too small to gain any real purchase around his father’s muscled forearm.
“Ten years,” the man said, exchanging the face of a parent for that of the Emperor. “It is not long, in the life of a man.”
Eight years gone, Kaden thought as he leaned back against the sloping boulder. Eight years gone, and the things he’d learned were as few as they were useless. He could craft pots, cups, urns, vases, and mugs from the clay of the river shallows, and he could sit still as a stone or run uphill for hours on end. He could mind goats. He could draw any plant, animal, or bird perfectly from memory—at least as long as someone wasn’t beating him bloody, he amended wryly. Although he had grown fond of Ashk’lan, he couldn’t stay there forever, and his accomplishments seemed a sad showing for eight years, nothing that would help him to run an empire. And now Tan had him counting rocks. I hope Valyn’s making better use of his time, he thought. I’ll bet he’s passing his tests, at the very least.
The thought of tests conjured up the pain in his back where the willow switch had broken open his ﬂesh. Better to wash them out now, he thought, eyeing the cold water. Won’t do any good to let them fester. He pulled his robe over his head, wincing as the rough fabric scraped over the bloody gashes, and tossed it in a rough heap. The pool wasn’t deep or wide enough to accommodate a dive, but at the upstream end one could step off a narrow ledge and drop in to the chest all at once. It was easier that way—like ripping off a scab. Kaden took three breaths, stilling his heart- beat and calming himself for the shock, then plunged.
As usual, the icy chill stabbed into him like a knife. He’d been bathing in the pool since he was ten, however, and had long ago learned to shepherd his body’s heat. He forced himself to take a deep, calm breath; hold it; then drive the meager warmth out through his trembling limbs. It was a trick the monks had. Scial Nin, the abbot, could spend whole hours sit- ting quietly in the winter snow, his shoulders bare to the elements, ﬂakes dissolving in little puffs of steam when they struck his skin. Kaden couldn’t manage that yet, but he could keep himself from biting his tongue in two as he reached over his shoulders to wash the dried blood out of the gashes. After a minute of vigorous scrubbing, he turned to the bank. Be- fore he could hoist himself out, however, a voice broke the stillness.
“Stay in the water.”
Kaden froze and sucked in his breath. Rampuri Tan. He turned, searching for his umial, only to ﬁnd the man seated in the shadow of an overhanging ﬂake of granite just a few paces away, legs crossed, back erect. Tan looked like a statue hewn from the mountain itself rather than a ﬁgure of ﬂesh and blood. He must have been sitting there the whole time, observing, judging.
“No wonder you can’t paint,” Tan said. “You’re blind.”
Kaden clamped his teeth together grimly, forced down the creeping cold, and kept silent.
Tan didn’t move. He looked, in fact, as though he might never move, but he scrutinized Kaden with the attention one might bring to a vexing problem on the stones board.
“Why didn’t you see me?” he asked ﬁnally. “You blended with the rocks.”
“Blended,” Tan chuckled. The sound held none of Heng’s mirth. “I blended with the rocks. I wonder what that might mean.” He glanced up toward the darkening sky, as though the answer were scrawled in the ﬂight of the peregrines wheeling far above. “A man blends water with tea. A baker blends ﬂour with egg. But blending ﬂesh with stone?” He shook his head as though the concept were beyond him.
Kaden had started to tremble beneath the icy water. The heat he had built up hauling tiles all afternoon was little more than a memory now, swept over the ledge with the chill current.
“Do you know why you are here?” the monk asked after an interminable pause.
“To learn discipline,” Kaden replied, trying not to catch his tongue between his chattering teeth. “Obedience.”
Tan shrugged. “Important, both of them, but you could learn discipline and obedience from a farmer, a bricklayer. The Shin can teach you more.”
“Concentration,” Kaden managed.
“Concentration? What does the Blank God want with your concentration? What does it matter to him if an acolyte in a dim stone building is able to recall the shape of a leaf?” Tan spread his hands as though waiting for Kaden’s response, then continued. “Your concentration is an affront to your god. Your presence, your self, is an affront to your god.”
“But the training—”
“—is a tool. A hammer is not a house. A knife is not death. You muddle the method with the goal.”
“The vaniate,” Kaden said, trying desperately to control his shivering.
“The vaniate,” Tan agreed, repeating the strange syllables as though he were tasting them. “Do you know what it means?” “Emptiness,” Kaden stammered. “Nothingness.”
Everything the monks studied, all the exercises the umials set their pupils, the endless hours painting, and running, and digging, and fasting, were aimed at that one constant goal: the emptiness of the vaniate. Two years earlier, in a frustrated moment, Kaden had been foolish enough to question the value of that emptiness. Heng had laughed out loud at the challenge, and then, smiling genially, replaced his pupil’s bowl and mug with two stones. Each day Kaden stood in the refectory line only to have the monk serving the food ladle his soup over the shapeless lump of granite. Sometimes a chunk of lamb or carrot balanced miraculously on top. More often, he was forced to watch in famished agony as the thick broth ran off the stone and back into the serving pot. When the monks ﬁlled their own mugs with deep drafts of cold water, Kaden could only splash the stone and then lick it off, the quartz rough against his tongue.
After two weeks, Heng brought out Kaden’s bowl and cup with a smile. Before he returned them, however, he hefted the rock Kaden had
been trying to drink from. “Your mind is like this rock: full, solid. Nothing else can ﬁt inside. You pack it with thoughts and emotions and claim that this fullness is something to be proud of!” He laughed at the absurdity of the notion. “How much you must have missed your empty old bowl!”
Over the following years, Kaden had worked diligently at the skill, learning how to hollow a space out of himself, out of his own mind. He hadn’t mastered it, of course—most monks didn’t reach the vaniate until their third or fourth decades—but he had made progress.
Memorization and recall, the saama’an, played a central role in the practice; they were the picks and levers with which the Shin pried away the self. Heng taught him that a packed mind resisted new impressions; it tended to force itself onto the surrounding world, rather than ﬁlling itself with that world. The inability to recall the shape of a thrush’s wing, for instance, indicated a mind transﬁxed with its own irrelevant ephemera.
And mind was not the only obstacle. The body, too, came packed with aches, itches, pains, and petty pleasures. When a monk emptied his mind of thought and emotion, the voice of the body proved all too ready to ﬁll the void. To silence that voice, the Shin stood naked in the baking sun, ran barefoot in the snow, sat in the same cross-legged position for days on end as the muscles cramped and the stomach twisted itself into knots. As long as the body impinged on the mind, vaniate was impossible. So, one by one, the Shin confronted the demands of the body, faced them down, and discarded them.
The practice was not easy. Earlier in the year, Kaden had helped to carry the body of one of the acolytes from the bottom of a gorge. The boy, only eleven years old, had fallen to his death while trying to run away in the night. Such tragedies were rare, however. The umials knew the limits of their students, and the monk whose acolyte had fallen was subjected to severe penance. Still, the testers considered sliced feet, frostbitten hands, and broken bones an inevitable portion of a boy’s ﬁrst ﬁve years at the monastery.
The quest for the vaniate never ended, of course, and even the oldest monks admitted to difﬁculties. The mind was a clay pot set out in the rain. A monk could empty it daily and still the old hopes and worries, the body’s meager strengths and perennial pains pattered against the bottom, trickled down the sides, ﬁlling it once more. The life of the Shin was a life of constant vigilance.
The monks were not cruel, exactly, but they made no allowances for the vagaries of human emotion. Love or hate, sadness or joy, these were cords that bound one to the illusion of self, and self, in the Shin lexicon, was a curse. It spread everywhere, obscuring the mind, muddying the world’s clarity. As the monks struggled to achieve emptiness, the self always seeped in, cold water in the bottom of a deep well.
Kaden’s limbs felt like lead. The frigid snowmelt in Umber’s Pool had numbed his ﬁngers and toes, chilled his core until it was an effort to lug each breath into his heavy lungs. He had never stayed in the pool so long so early in the season, and yet Tan showed no signs of relenting.
“Emptiness,” the monk mused. “You could translate the word that way, but our language doesn’t map well onto such a foreign concept. Do you know where the word comes from?”
Kaden shook his head helplessly. At the moment, there was nothing he could have cared about less than the etymology of some strange Shin obsession. Two winters prior, one of the younger monks, Fallon Jorgun, had died of cold when he broke his leg running the Circuit of Ravens, and water chilled a body far more quickly than air.
“The Csestriim,” Tan replied at last. “It is a Csestriim word.”
At any other point, Kaden would have pricked up his ears and paid at- tention. The Csestriim were nursery stories—a vicious, vanished race, who had walked the world when it was young, who had ruled that world before the arrival of humans and then fought ruthlessly to exterminate those same humans. Kaden had never heard them mentioned in conjunction with the vaniate. Why the Shin would want to master some skill of a long-dead, evil race, he had no idea, and with the heat inside of him leak- ing away, he couldn’t bring himself to care. The Csestriim were millennia gone, if they had ever lived at all, and if Tan didn’t let him out of the water, he was going to follow them shortly.
“For the Csestriim,” the older monk continued, “the vaniate was not an arcane skill to be mastered. They lived in the vaniate. Emotion was as alien to their minds as emptiness is to ours.”
“Why do you want me to learn it?” Kaden managed weakly. Breathing was difﬁcult, and speaking felt nearly impossible.
“Learning,” Tan said. “You care too much about learning. Studies. Progress. Growth.” He spat the words. “Self. Maybe if you stopped think- ing about your learning, you might notice the world around you. You would have noticed me sitting in the shadows.”
Kaden kept silent. He wasn’t sure he could have spoken anyway, not without biting off the end of his tongue. He’s made his point, he thought to himself, and now I can get out of this ’Shael-spawned water. He wasn’t at all sure his arms would be able to hoist him from the pool, but surely Tan would help to drag him out. The older monk, however, made no move to rise.
“Are you cold?” he asked, as though the thought had just struck him. Kaden nodded vigorously.
Tan watched with the detached curiosity a monk might reserve for the study of a wounded animal. “What feels cold?”
“L-l-legs,” Kaden managed. “Ar-arms.”
Tan frowned. “But are you cold?”
There was some change in the inﬂection, but Kaden couldn’t make sense of it. The world seemed to be getting darker. Had the sun set so quickly? He tried to remember how late it was when he’d started down to the pool, but he couldn’t think of anything beyond the heavy stillness of his limbs. He forced himself to take a breath. There was a question. Tan had asked him a question.
“Are you cold?” the monk said again.
Kaden stared at him helplessly. He couldn’t feel his feet anymore. Couldn’t feel much of anything. The cold was gone, somehow. The cold was gone and he had stopped shivering. The water felt like . . . nothing, like air, like space. Maybe if he just closed his eyes for a moment . . .
“Are you cold?” Tan said again.
Kaden shook his head wearily. The cold had gone. He let his eyes slip shut. Nothingness surrounded him in a gentle embrace.
Then someone was behind him, dragging him by the armpits out of the water. He wanted to protest that he was too tired to move, that he just wanted to go to sleep, but the person kept tugging until he was sprawled out on the ground. Strong hands bundled him in what must have been a robe or blanket; his skin was too numb to feel the texture. A blow struck his face, jarring him from his stupor. He opened his eyes to protest, and Tan slapped him again across the cheek, hard.
“Hurts,” Kaden mumbled blearily. Tan paused. “What hurts?” “Cheek.”
“Do you hurt?”
Kaden tried to focus on the question, but it made no sense. The world was fog. The pain was a red line scribbled on nothingness.
“And you?” Tan pressed.
Kaden opened his mouth, but for a long time words eluded him. “I don’t . . . ,” he managed at last. What did the monk want? There was pain and there was darkness. That was all. “I’m not . . . ,” he began, then let the words go.
His umial paused, dark eyes bright and intense. “Good,” he said ﬁnally. “That’s a start.”