Here's the first chapter of The Tyrant's Law, the third instalment in Daniel Abraham's entralling epic fantasy series.
Milo of Order Murro
Milo slipped in the darkness, falling to one knee. The stones of the beach cut his skin, and the blood darkened the oiled wool of his leggings. The old fisherman, Kirot his name was, paused and looked back at him, lifting his lantern and one white eyebrow in query. Are you coming, or staying here? To the north, the waves cracked with ice. To the south, the deep darkness of the village waited for their return. Milo forced himself to stand. A little more blood would do him no harm. He’d lost enough, God knew. Kirot nodded and turned back to the long, slow trudge along the shore.
The rhythm of their steps sounded against the waves like the complex patterns of a marriage dance. Milo could almost conjure up the thrill of the violins and the tapping of the shell drums. He had heard it said that of all the thirteen races of mankind, the Haaverkin had the most exquisite sense of music. In fairness, he’d only heard this said by other Haaverkin. A woman’s voice rose in the music, ululating in a sensual harmony with the strings, and Milo recognized that he was hallucinating. The voice of the water, his father called it. He’d heard it before sometimes when he’d been out on the boats in the dim light before dawn or limping back in to shore after a long day on the cold northern waters. Sometimes it was music, other times voices in conversation or argument. Some of the very old or very young claimed that the sounds were real, that they were the Drowned calling out to their brother race. Milo’s father said that was rot and piss. It was only a man’s mind playing tricks on itself, and the roar of ice and water to give it ground to play on. And so that was what Milo believed.
The coast nearest his village was ragged. Cliffs and stony beach, fat green crabs and snow-grey gulls. Some nights the aurora danced green and gold in the sky, but tonight it was low dark cloud and the smell of snow coming. The moon struggled now and again through the cover, peeping down at the two men and then looking shyly away. No, not two men. Not yet. One man and one nearly so. Milo had been a boy that morning, and would be a man before he slept, but he was still in the dangerous place between places, neither one thing nor another. It was why he was here.
He knew that the best thing was not to look directly into the glow of Kirot’s lantern. The tiny light would blind him. Better to stare into the shadows and leave his eyes adapted to the dark. But without his willing it, his gaze slid toward the flame, and he didn’t have the will left to pull it away. Of the hundreds of small fishing villages along the Hallskari coast, each had its order, its ritual, its secret and signs and mysteries. Bloody battles had raged between some for generations over disagreements whose origins were lost in the dark waters of history. Order Wodman, their faces tattooed in blue and red, sank the ships of the green-faced Order Lûs, and Order Lûs burned Wodman salting houses until the elder clan came from Rukkyupal to force a reconciliation. In some orders, to become a man meant a monthlong voyage in a boat of your own design. In others, the boys would fast until the great rolls of Haaverkin fat were reduced to thin folds of skin. For Milo and the boys of Order Murro, there was the initiation. A night of songs and coddling, a last chance to sleep in the women’s quarters, and then from dawn to dusk a series of ritual combats and beatings that left Milo’s back raw and his knees shaking-weak.
And after the last of these, the secret initiation about which no boy knew and no man would speak. Even now, all that Milo could say for certain was that it involved walking along the shore at low tide on the longest night of the year.
Kirot grunted and stepped to the left. Milo’s hazy mind failed to grasp why until he trod into the freezing puddle between the stones. The cold bit at his toes. Any of the other races—Firstblood, Tralgu, Yemmu, even the oil-furred Kurtadam—would have been in danger of death with a wet leg on a night like this. The dragons had made Haaverkin to survive the cold, and Milo only felt the wet as another insult to his dignity in a day rich with them.
Kirot heaved a great sigh, stopped, and took a bone pipe from his hat. He tamped tobacco into the bowl, took the stem between his rot-grey teeth, and leaned close to the lantern, sucking at the smoke like a baby at the teat. His face was a labyrinth of ink and age lines. When he looked at Milo, there was a solemnity in his expression that said wherever they had been bound for, they had reached. The old fisherman held out the pipe. Milo considered whether he should pretend to cough on the smoke. Boys weren’t allowed tobacco, though most of them found ways to sneak pinches of it from their fathers and older brothers. The bone bowl was warm, and Milo inhaled deeply, the glow of the embers like the bright eye of a Dartinae. It must have been the right thing, because Kirot smiled.
“Listen to me,” Kirot said, and hearing a voice that wasn’t swimming up from inside his own head startled Milo. “Of all the orders in all the villages of the Haaverkin, only ours knows the great secret of the world. You listening? There are things only we know.”
“All right,” Milo said.
“Josen, son of Kol. You remember him?”
“He wasn’t lost in a fouled net,” Kirot said. “He spoke of what you are about to learn outside the men’s circle. His own father killed him. Yours’ll kill you too, if you tell our secrets. What you learn here, no one ever knows, except us. Follow me?”
“Speak it,” Kirot said. “This isn’t time for being unclear.”
The warmth of the smoke cleared Milo’s head and soothed the aches in his flesh. He took another draw and exhaled through his nostrils. A particularly large wave roared against the stone shore, leaving spears and daggers of ice behind as it drew back into the ink-black sea.
“If I speak of what I learn here tonight, my life will be forfeit.”
“And no one will even know why,” Kirot said. “Not your mother. Not your wives, if you have any such. To everyone, it will have been sad mischance. Nothing more.”
“I understand,” Milo said.
Kirot stretched his broad shoulders, the joints of his spine cracking like snapped twigs.
“You know how it is, waking up from a good sleep?” Kirot asked. “You’re in some warm little dream about drinking goat’s milk with your dead aunt or some such nonsense, and then you come to, and it all fades away. Maybe if you were sick-tired to start or some dog’s started yapping in the night and woke you, you’re a little here and a little there at the same time. Don’t matter, though, because the dream that was all solid and real just ups and slides out of your mind. When the time comes to haul out for the day, and you can’t even say what it was you were dreaming about.”
Milo drew on the pipe again. His knees shook less and his back hurt more. A breath later, he noticed Kirot’s mildly annoyed gaze on him. Milo shook his head.
“Ask you again, and attend it this time. You know how it is, waking up from a good sleep?”
“Good, then. So that dream that fades? That’s the whole world. You, me. The sea, the sky. Every retching thing there is. It’s all a dream the dragons dream, and if the last dragon ever wakes up, we’re fucked. Everything that ever happened comes undone and cooks off into nothing.”
He said it in the matter‑of‑fact voice that belonged to conversations about weather and the odds of a good catch. Milo waited for the rest of the parable. Another wave rattled the stones and ice. In the dim light of the lantern, Kirot looked abashed.
“All right, then,” the old man said, turning his back to the sea. “No point waiting here. Come on.”
At first, Milo thought they were heading back to the village, and pleasure and disappointment fought for the greater share of his fatigue-drunk mind. Kirot didn’t lead him back toward the darkened houses, though. He took him to the cliffside. Centuries of tides had eaten at the hard stone of the land, sucking away soil and leaving the the bones of the world exposed. Caves and tunnels pocked it, pools of darkness within the darkness. Kirot led toward one, the lantern swinging at his side. Milo gave silent thanks that the man hadn’t asked for his pipe back.
The cave leaned into the land. Seaweed and driftwood choked the way forward, ready cover for crabs or ice snakes. Brine and rot thickened the chill air. Kirot raised the small lantern, muttered to himself, and waded forward, into the black. Milo followed. The cave sank deeper in, then turned and became a tunnel. The stone changed from pebbled brown and grey and black to an almost luminous green. Milo had seen a knife once made of dragon’s jade, unbreakable and permanently keen. This looked the same. A black line marked where the water stopped, even at high tide. Milo wouldn’t have thought they’d gone up enough for that, but his mind still wasn’t wholly his own. Perhaps he’d lost himself for a time somewhere in the tunnel. Perhaps the tobacco Kirot had given him had a few seeds of some less benign plant.
“Here,” Kirot whispered. “Look, but fuck’s sake keep quiet.”
He held out the lantern. The old man’s face looked grim and uncomfortable and as close as Milo had ever seen to fear. Anxiety snaked down past Milo’s exhaustion and pain as he reached out for the light. The iron handle scraped against his palm as he gripped it. Kirot nodded him on, then plucked the pipe from between Milo’s teeth and squatted down on his wide haunches as if ready to wait there in the darkness forever. Milo walked on.
The tunnel opened out into a larger chamber. Milo had been in any number of salt caves in his life, natural gaps where softer stone or mineral had been eroded away to leave holes in the flesh of the world. Once, he’d even found the remains of a smuggler’s camp: rotted steel blades and shattered pottery. The place he stepped into now bore those natural caverns no resemblance. The green walls were plumb and square, black lines carved into them in forms that made Milo’s skin crawl to look at. Black streaks bled down from holes where iron sconces had rusted to nothing timeless ages before. And before him, in the great room’s center, a statue of a dragon larger than a house. Its scales were the black of the midnight sea under layers of lichen and moss. The closed eyes were larger than Milo’s head, and the wide claws that rested on the ground could have covered his full body and left no sign that he was under them. Great wings lay folded against its sides.
Milo found himself weeping. He had no words to describe the commanding beauty of the thing before him or the ice‑in‑the-crotch terror that it inspired. He murmured an obscenity under his breath, and the carved dragon before him made it seem like a prayer. His heart fluttering in his breast, he reached out and put his hand against the broad scales.
Stone. Cold, hard, and dead.
He had heard that the great cities had such things. Images of dragons so old they’d been carved from living models, the impressions of massive claws, miraculous bestiaries and towers. He had heard of the great and mysterious ships that fishermen saw in the freezing mist that never came to shore. His world had always been filled with stories of miracles, but never the things themselves. Not until now. He let himself sit, his abused legs folding. The floor of the buried temple was cold and gritty, and the tears dripped down his cheeks, hot and utterly without shame. A warmth seemed to grow in his breast, a heat that came from having a secret. And more than that, from at last being a man. He imagined Kirot decades before, with his hair black and his face smooth, where he now sat. He imagined his father, his older brothers. All of them had carried the secret between them, and no amount of friendship, fondness, or loyalty could bridge that chasm. He had crossed over now. He knew what they knew. He was one of them now, not a child, but a man of Order Murro. And yes, it was a secret he would carry to his grave.
The lantern flame fluttered, and Milo noticed the greasy smell of the oil. He didn’t want to be caught in the darkness of the temple, trying to find his way back to old Kirot in the inky black. He rose, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave. There needed to be something more. Some gesture that came from him, that made all of this his own.
“I will guard this secret,” he said, his thin voice echoing through the chamber. “No man alive will take it from me.”
He had a feeling of acceptance, almost of gratitude, radiating from the still stone before him. It was an illusion, of course, no more real than the voice of the water, but its unreality didn’t seem to matter. He would carry this moment with him, buried under the world with the sea at his back and the dragon before him, forever.
A sound came like the thunder of a gigantic wave, and Milo fell back. The great statue shifted, ripples passing along the expanse of its side, dust sheeting down. It shifted its foreclaws, raised its head, the vast mouth opening in a massive yawn. Within, the flesh of its mouth was wet and black, and the hot breath stank of oil and bit the air like the fumes from distilled wine. The massive head drooped, took a new position on its folded claws, and went still again. Milo heard something like a small girl’s laughter, high and small and paroxysmal, and knew it was him.
A hard-callused hand took him by the hair and pulled him back, another hand clamping down over his mouth and choking off his yelp. Kirot looked peeved; he scooped up the still-burning lantern and pushed Milo back down into the tunnel. Soon the walls around them grew soft and rounded again, and the cracking roar of the waves returned. When they reached the stone beach, Kirot stopped and lifted the lantern.
“I tell you that the world ends if the dragon wakes up,” the old fisherman said, “and to keep quiet, and what is it you do, boy?”
Kirot spat in disgust. When he spoke, his voice carried a full hold of contempt.
“Milo son of Gytan of Order Murro, I stand witness that you are now a man. Don’t let it go to your fucking head.”