Action-packed adventure from one of epic fantasy’s most exciting new voices: when a retired warrior returns to battle to seek revenge for a terrible blow, old friends and old enemies will pay the price. The explosive finale to the trilogy that began with A Crown for Cold Silver
Born unto a dying Star, where violence and corruption were woven into the very weft of the world, Pope Y’Homa III came of age in the darkest era of recorded history. She weathered evil upon evil, witnessed yet worse sins, and, in her sixteenth year, sacrificed that which was most precious to her so that she might save the souls of all—she renounced her station, her empire, and, if need be, her life. As her fleet of the righteous sailed from Desolation Sound, the mountaintop behind them threw a garish light up into the iron clouds, fulfilling yet another of the prophecies of the Chain Canticles. Without the Black Pope’s presence to hold down the chthonic inferno that had smoldered since the Age of Wonders, the city of Diadem burned, just as foretold . . . but Y’Homa only learned this from the Holy See after the fact, being far too devoted to her cause to look back herself. Instead she kept her unblinking eyes on the gauzy grey horizon, beyond which lay her birthright: the Risen Kingdom of Jex Toth. Her rituals had brought it back from beneath the waves, and now it patiently awaited the coming of its keeper.
A final trial arose to thwart the Chainite pilgrims on the cusp of salvation, but Y’Homa paid the Immaculate blockade no more respect than she did the sharks that followed in the shifting shadows of her galleon. Just as a pod of sea wolves would race up from the deep to feast upon the scavenging sharks, so, too, would the Imperial fleet prey upon the Immaculate navy if they chose to force the issue. A headwind ensured that the semaphore exchange between Y’Homa’s vessel and the nearest Immaculate turtleship was brief, the Chainites calling their bluff and swiftly sweeping past the foreign boats without a shot being fired.
“They were not prepared for the strength of our ranks,” said Cardinal Audhumbla as they left the blockade in their wake.
“Nor for the strength of our faith,” Cardinal Messalina replied.
“They were not prepared for us at all,” said Cardinal Diamond. “Thin as they are spread, I suspect their orders are to watch for any activity leaving Jex Toth, not protect against a fleet approaching it.”
“Their motives are as inconsequential as the scuttling patterns of lice upon a dying ape,” said Y’Homa. “Whatever the cause of their cowardice, it has bought them but a brief reprieve—soon the waves of blood shall be lapping at the shores of Othean, and every other iniquitous corner of the Star.”
Cardinal Diamond cleared his throat. “With all due respect for Your Grace’s certitude, in light of their naval presence so close to the coast we must consider the possibility that the Immaculates have already made landfall and—”
“They have not,” said Y’Homa, ending the conversation.
While the Holy See had fretted and frowned over the possibility of the Immaculates invading the Risen Kingdom long before the Crimson ships could reach it, their Shepherdess had known the foreign heretics would be unable to set foot on those hallowed shores. The Fallen Mother had ordained Y’Homa to be the first to enter the Garden of the Star, and no mortal nor devil could prevent her from realizing her destiny. She would loose the Angelic Brood of the Allmother to cleanse the world, defeating the Deceiver once and for all, and in doing so transcend her mortal flesh to rule eternal as the Fallen Mother’s avatar. From her flaming throne Y’Homa would sit in state for perpetuity, her proud virtue a beacon that would outshine and outlast both sun and moon, calling home the souls of the faithful who had been left behind upon the Star.
Oh, how ecstatically Y’Homa shivered upon first spying the holy land through the captain’s hawkglass. It was just as Diadem Gate had foretold on the Day of Becoming, a luxuriously green realm set like an emerald in the shiny blue silk of the sea. She bit her lip as she scanned the mountains of the interior, beyond which lay the antediluvian cities of Jex Toth that would soon house the refugees of a diseased world. Here dwelt angels in need of a mortal mistress, an army in need of a commander.
Excited as the thought made her, when next the captain passed her his instrument with shaking hands she saw something more glorious still: the ancient harbor of Alunah coming into sight, and what a sight it was! The Burnished Chain’s charts of Jex Toth were the only ones that remained from the Age of Wonders, and while the relics had steered them true to their destination no mark on a map could hint at the majesty of the place itself. Here the verdant foliage only poked out intermittently through the frozen fall of white stone that poured down from the headlands to fill the entire bowl of the cove, spreading out and across the water in a fan of ivory jetties. The buildings were in disrepair when they were not outright ruined, and Y’Homa nodded in understanding at the Fallen Mother’s wisdom. The Garden of the Star was not a static realm where the idle could reap the same harvest as the industrious, but a paradise reserved for those worthy souls eager to work toward its restoration.
The black-armored angels perched on the rooftops and quays stood out against the pale stones of the city they had held fast for five hundred years awaiting the arrival of the Black Pope, and Y’Homa returned the hawkglass to the quaking captain. Well might the frail quaver before the divine, she thought, sitting up straighter in her teak throne at the prow of the ship. Pay true power the respect it deserves.
Yet even here, with the world of mortals at her back and immortal glory glinting in the sunlight ahead, the ache that had lodged in Y’Homa’s heart ever since the Day of Becoming throbbed and throbbed. It was her last temptation, this sorrow in her uncle’s sudden decline, and the impure hopes that hatched like maggots from that sorrow. He was demented, plain and simple, and much as she wanted him healed and sane again, that desire ran counter to everything she held most dear—her faith that the Fallen Mother would help only those who helped themselves. Shanatu was too far gone for that.
“Please, please, please,” he said from where he cowered behind her on the deck, but Y’Homa did not turn away from the approaching harbor. She didn’t want the papal guards who minded the madman to see the tears in her eyes as her once-brilliant mentor broke her heart anew with his deranged rambling. “I was wrong, we all were, don’t go, turn back, back, another trick of the Deceiver, another plot . . . those are not angels, they are naked devils, and they will devour the Star, Jirella, please, you must stop, you must—”
“Put his gag back in,” Y’Homa barked over her shoulder, Shanatu’s use of her mortal name instead of her papal one a blasphemy too far, even for a condemned apostate’s last words. How far he had fallen . . .
All through her reign he had been there for her, advising and encouraging. While the terms of the Burnished Chain’s truce with Queen Indsorith had prevented Shanatu from sitting on the Holy See, his counsel meant more to Y’Homa than the rest of the church combined. Who else could understand the burdens of the papacy but her only living predecessor? He had been the voice of the Fallen Mother for longer than Y’Homa had been alive, and his abdication of the post had been entirely strategic—their savior continued to speak directly to her uncle, whereas Y’Homa only caught whispers here and there, in the midst of her most intense rites, and relied on Shanatu to interpret their meaning.
Then came the Day of Becoming, when the obedient servants of the Fallen Mother gazed through the window that had opened in Diadem Gate and beheld the Garden of the Star and its angelic guardians. All those with eyes clouded by the Deceiver fell back, demented and delirious from the vision of absolute grace. It was then that Y’Homa’s true test presented itself, and Allmother protect her, she had been found wanting.
Pity was a cardinal sin, and mercy a graver one, yet when the time came she had been unable to have Shanatu crucified along with the rest of the false clerics. Surely one who had sat at the foot of the Fallen Mother could still be saved, she had told herself, surely the mere sight of Jex Toth would restore sanity to the servant who had dedicated his life to bringing about its return.
The mortal heart is capable of such hubris. Looking out over the baroquely carved bowsprit as her armada fast approached the magnificent white harbor of Jex Toth and its jet-black throngs of angels who heralded her arrival, Pope Y’Homa III gave the most difficult order of her papacy.
“Cut out my uncle’s tongue and crucify him on the mast; our saviors will not find a single apostate among our number.”
As soon as the words escaped her salt-cracked lips Y’Homa felt her soul lighten, and letting go of this final attachment to the deceitful world of the flesh provoked an immediate reaction from Jex Toth. Colossal ivory entities glided up through the pale blue waters of the bay to greet her navy, the leviathans trailing fronds as long as the Chainite ships, and far smaller envoys of similar cast winged down from the headland that cradled the harbor. Y’Homa wept at the sight of the Fallen Mother’s children, grown monstrous by the Deceiver’s seed but destined to play a role as saintly as that of the Black Pope herself. At long last the Shepherdess of the Lost had come home; she would deliver the Key to the Star to this heavenly host and they would go forth to cleanse the world of sin.
Behind Y’Homa came the sound of pounding hammers and muffled screams, but nothing could ruin the moment.