The forever court, p.1

The Forever Court, page 1

 

The Forever Court
 


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The Forever Court


  BOOKS BY DAVE RUDDEN

  Knights of the Borrowed Dark

  The Forever Court

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Text copyright © 2017 by Dave Rudden

  Cover art copyright © 2017 by Kerem Beyit

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Originally published in hardcover by Penguin Books Ltd., a division of Penguin Random House LLC, London, in 2017.

  Random House and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  Excerpt from The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway, copyright © 2008 by Nick Harkaway. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. Excerpt from Witches Abroad, by Terry Pratchett, The Orion Publishing Group, London. Copyright © Terry and Lyn Pratchett, 1991.

  Visit us on the Web! rhcbooks.com

  Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at RHTeachersLibrarians.com

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.

  ISBN 9780553523010 (trade)—ISBN 9780553523027 (lib. bdg.)—

  Ebook ISBN 9780553523034

  Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.

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  Contents

  Cover

  Books by Dave Rudden

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Epigraph

  Prologue: Favored

  Chapter 1: Paper Cuts

  Chapter 2: A Question of Half Steps

  Chapter 3: Little Boxes

  Chapter 4: Redemptress

  Chapter 5: Two Wars and a Promise

  Chapter 6: The Beginning and End of Stars

  Chapter 7: In the Absence of an Adversary

  Chapter 8: Very Edifice Greaves

  Chapter 9: The Secret Life of Librarians

  Chapter 10: Currency

  Chapter 11: Where We Put Our Broken Things

  Chapter 12: The Forever Court

  Chapter 13: The Trial of Ambrel Croit

  Chapter 14: The Right Place to See

  Chapter 15: Shallows

  Chapter 16: Scar Tissue

  Chapter 17: Fatal Family Traditions

  Chapter 18: Don’t Mention the War

  Chapter 19: A Little Farther

  Chapter 20: Monster

  Chapter 21: Two of a Kind

  Chapter 22: Icebergs

  Chapter 23: Line of Sight

  Chapter 24: Shadow Puppets

  Chapter 25: The War That Will Come

  Chapter 26: The Natural State of Denizen Hardwick

  Chapter 27: Gravity

  Chapter 28: What a Croit Believes

  Chapter 29: Revelation

  Chapter 30: The Pull of the Wire

  Chapter 31: Simplicity

  Chapter 32: Us and Them

  Chapter 33: Adversary

  Chapter 34: Blunt Instrument

  Chapter 35: Flashbulb Souls

  Chapter 36: The Color of Royalty

  Chapter 37: The Wrong Kind of Strong

  Epilogue: Family

  A  Further  Secret About  Writers ...

  To Graham Tugwell, Deirdre Sullivan, and Sarah Maria Griff—Doomsburies, yo.

  Fire was our first magic and our first science, and we have harnessed it hardly at all.

  Nick Harkaway, The Gone-Away World

  People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.

  Terry Pratchett, Witches Abroad

  THE WORDS OF THE CROITS:

  SHE LOVED.

  SHE STOLE.

  AND WE KNEW FIRE.

  THE DAY DAWNED AS gray as gossamer, and Uriel fought his sister on their grandmother’s grave.

  The mausoleum was the largest on the hill—stone and gold and dark electrum, slick and sharp and spired. Much like the old woman herself, if Grandfather’s stories were to be believed, and Uriel believed everything that came out of Grandfather’s mouth.

  Cold lines and jagged edges—the Family values of the Croits.

  Blade found blade in shrieks and hums of steel. Bare feet kicked dew from the ice-smooth marble. Uriel nearly slipped, catching a spire with one hand and whipping his sword at Ambrel with the other.

  She dodged. Of course. Uriel was stronger but Ambrel quicker, and so far he had hit nothing but the sound of her laughter. His elbows and knuckles ached where they had banged against the mausoleum’s crown of stone spines, but he was laughing with her. He couldn’t help it.

  “You’re never,” he said between parries, “going to forgive me for my growth spurt, are you?”

  “It’s our growth spurt,” she called. “You stole it.”

  She leapt into the maze of graves below.

  Uriel pursued his sister through the Garden of the Waiting—a city of the dead. No two tombs were the same. The necropolis was a mismatched assortment of pale towers and low-peaked vaults, ancient dolmens and weather-bruised sarcophagi, linked only by the ever-present crest of a crow perched upon a skeletal hand.

  There was a saying from Outside—the past is another country—but here the centuries were packed close as cousins, the history of the Croits rendered in statue and stone. Some of the paths between the graves were as wide as city avenues—borders of trimmed grass, peonies winking in the dirt. Along others, the statues had advanced, reaching out to their brothers and sisters across the way, coming together in a tangle of limbs and blank white faces.

  Memorial plaques dusted the ground, the dandruff of the deceased. Uriel didn’t spare them a glance. He knew all their names already.

  Was that movement? He picked his way through a thicket of great-aunts, pausing for a moment on the shoulders of

  EUTHALIA CROIT

  ~ DIED IN BATTLE ~

  to get his bearings.

  To another family, using the resting places of one’s ancestors as a training ground might be considered disrespectful. Irrelevant, Uriel thought. That was the point of being a Croit: what other families felt didn’t matter. The only reason Uriel even bothered imagining others’ feelings at all was because Grandfather said that it was useful to think like your enemy, and that’s what other people were. Not because they had done anything—doing things to Croits was, historically, quite violently discouraged—but because they weren’t Family; they weren’t Favored. It was as simple as that.

  Uriel swung down from Euthalia, giving her a fond pat on the knee. He was sure she’d be happy to know she was contributing to his training. Croit blood was in short supply, after all. You didn’t get to stop serving the Family just because you were dead.

  Bar the cawing of fat gray crows, the necropolis was silent. Uriel gave one a nod as he passed, touching the embroidered bird on his shirt for luck.

  If he were Ambrel—which wasn’t a stretch to imagine: there was and always had been a mere half second between the beat of their hearts—he’d be moving slowly, carefully, his pale skin and graying hair hiding him among the statues, the natural camouflage of a Croit.

  There. A hint. A flicker of motion. A limb moving where it shouldn’t.

  Uriel prowled after it, his own limbs soundless, his breathing stilled. The approving glances of dead relatives followed him as he hunted, his ambush already planned.

  There was a curve ahead, where the Middle Ages lapped up against the
Renaissance. Uriel had always liked this district of the Garden—history was his favorite subject, and the sculptors had included every war wound. Armor hung in tatters, each strand of leather and link of chain lovingly rendered in stone. Uriel had spent hours in the archives of the Weeping Gallery, matching stories to scars.

  It was a good place for an ambush, but, moreover, it would annoy Ambrel terribly to be brought down in his favorite spot, especially after she’d chosen the Garden as their battleground.

  With siblings, it was the little things.

  The figure ahead had paused. If Uriel had been silent before, now he was a ghost. He barely dis- turbed the air as he crept to the top of one of the mausoleums—

  LORD TERRATAS CROIT

  ~ DIED BETRAYED ~

  —and geckoed along its roof. He did not raise his head, for fear the weight of his gaze would alert her.

  He tensed, blade trembling a hair’s breadth above the marble, and lunged.

  Nothing.

  Uriel landed with a graceful roll that was appreciated by absolutely nobody. He spun in a circle, blade raised to block an attack that didn’t come.

  Well, this is embarrassing.

  And, just like that, his sword was gone, smashed from fingers already turning numb. He opened his mouth to yelp and a fist filled it, the world exploding to streaky darkness. It was almost a relief to hit the ground.

  Uriel spat grass. “Grandfather.”

  A man of angles, sparse and strange, with a bloom of iron on his cheek, Grandfather looked like he had been carved from the heart of a glacier, his skin colorless and tight on his skull. At times, Uriel expected to see the light shining through him, yet at others the old man was the most solid thing in the world, as dense and heavy as a neutron star.

  His right hand flexed with a creak of sinews. His left sleeve hung empty by his side.

  “What did you do wrong?”

  It was a common question for the old man to ask.

  “Focused too closely on the target,” Uriel responded immediately, pushing himself to his knees. “And excluded the thought that I might become a target myself.”

  Nothing in his expression betrayed the fact that Ambrel was inching up behind Grandfather. Not a muscle. Not an eyelash. His eyes were Grandfather’s eyes: cool, calm, and the color of glass.

  “We must all be ready to die when the time comes, Uriel,” Grandfather growled. “But we are Croits.” He said the name with the hard pride the sharp syllable demanded. Ambrel’s blade glittered behind him.

  “Our blood is rarer than the purest diamond, the finest gold. Sacrifice is expected. But only when—”

  Ambrel struck, a perfect thrust, and Grandfather stepped around it as if they were two parts of the same machine. Her momentum carried her into his elbow with a crack, but as she slumped back, dazed, she caught Uriel’s dropped sword with her foot, flicking it up to slap into her brother’s palm. He came to his feet with a snarl.

  Grandfather held up his hand.

  Uriel halted his lunge immediately, flipping his blade round in a salute. Ambrel queasily mirrored it from the ground.

  “When She wills it,” they said in unison, completing Grandfather’s phrase.

  It always sounded more impressive coming from him, though, thought Uriel. The head of the Family had a voice like a saw bisecting a coffin lid. Uriel’s was still in that unpredictably squeaky phase that made him reluctant to use it at all.

  “Good,” Grandfather responded. “It’s time.”

  Two hearts skipped the same beat, half a second apart.

  —

  THE ANCESTRAL HOME OF the Croits was called Eloquence, and it was a ruin. The island on which it stood was only a few kilometers across, split in two by an ax-wound of a valley, sheer and bare and brutal, as if someone had tried to murder the world and this was where the blade had fallen. Straggly, desiccated trees halfheartedly dotted its flanks. The air smelled of dust and the distant sea, and it was so cold that the weak sunlight felt like ice water on Uriel’s skin. This wasn’t the kind of landscape that was content to be photographed by tourists or painted by nice men with beards. This was the kind of landscape that made poets fall in love with it and then drove them steadily mad.

  And within it lay the corpse of a castle.

  Eloquence had once clung to the western cliff, all needle towers and battlements, its insectile silhouette dominating the sky. But that had been a very long time ago. The castle had fallen, and the fall had not been kind. Its former perch was nothing but a swath of shattered stone, and the castle itself lay in crushed folds a hundred meters below.

  It must have been like an iceberg calving, Uriel thought as he and his sister left the Garden of the Waiting and picked their way up the slope to Eloquence. He imagined that centuries-ago fall: a great groan shaking the air, stone separating from stone, the shock of looking out of the window and seeing the whole world move up.

  Ambrel flashed him a nervous grin. He felt it too—the same mixture of dread and excitement that had driven them out to fight in the sleepless dawn. This was the day. This was their day. Everything they had learned, everything they had been, their every heartbeat—

  It had all come to this.

  Slowly, carefully, they entered Eloquence. The impact against the valley floor had violently reordered the fortress, like a body dropped from a height. Once-wide hallways had been forced into new shapes; chambers had collapsed while others opened; floors turned to ceilings, ceilings turned to floors. And everywhere the wires—taut and gleaming, crisscrossing every path, dividing the gloom into strict geometric shapes. Some were blunt braids. Others were pin-thin and razor-sharp.

  It had been their black embrace that had held the castle together on its semi-fatal plunge, the way ivy bound a wall even as it strangled it, and, despite the centuries, not a single one had slackened or sagged.

  Specks of dust peppered the air. Some drifted against the wires and cut themselves in half.

  Down and down the three Croits went, through the departed glory of the Hall of Receiving, between the splintered pillars of the Majesty Seat. Everywhere, the Crow and the Claw could be seen. Eloquence twisted the sound of their steps into overlapping echoes until it was an effort to separate their own footsteps from the multitude of ghostly feet trailing them.

  Had any other Croit been making this journey, their path would have been lined with Family in silent support. The insult washed over Uriel without purchase. He had everyone he needed right here.

  And, ahead, the door. Her door. Grandfather disappeared through it without a word and, just for a moment, Uriel and Ambrel hesitated. This was where the light gave out. Soon, if all went well, the twins would no longer need it.

  Their final descent was completed in darkness so total that Uriel’s eyes felt like they had been filled with oil, but he and Ambrel had practiced this walk. Slipping between the unseen wires felt as natural as breathing: an arm crooked here, a leg angled there. Once, though, Uriel felt a brush on his cheekbone and knew that he had lost a layer of skin. But that was only right. No one had descended without shedding blood since Grandfather was a boy. There was always a price to pay.

  Finally, the feel of the air changed. Uriel could sense space around him where before there had been the close press of wire and stone. The Shrine. Ambrel was beside him, Grandfather somewhere ahead, and above—

  Her.

  Suspended. Silent. Gigantic. There wasn’t a single photon of light in the chamber for Uriel to see by, but he felt Her presence all the same, displacing the darkness with Her grandeur. His eyes ached trying to pierce the gloom, but nothing of Her shape was given to him.

  As is proper. They would see Her when they were Favored. If they were Favored. For a moment, Uriel felt a decidedly un-Croit-like thrill of fear.

  “Kneel,” Grandfather commanded.

  The twins did so.

  “Long ago,” Grandfather intoned, “we were given a duty. A calling. And now here you kneel, where the first of us kn
elt, ready to know whether that calling will be yours. Whether you are Favored. Whether you are Croits. The Redemptress looks upon you and, if you are worthy, the world will tremble with the fire She bestows.

  “Have each of you chosen the shape that fire will take?”

  Ambrel answered first. “My Prayer will be a song, Grandfather. My voice, Her inferno.”

  “Good,” Grandfather said. “And Uriel?”

  His mind flew back to long mornings of meditation, of holding a shape in his mind until he saw it behind his eyelids, until it filled his dreams. The Redemptress gave much, but asked equal in return, and the necropolis was full of those who had been unworthy.

  Faith was fire in the blood of a Croit.

  “It will be a sword, Grandfather.” And so will I.

  “Our forefather told us that She will return.” Grandfather’s voice was full of dark promise. “She will lead us in the War That Will Come. The Adversary will appear, and we will smite him down, and in return ...”

  Sweat was rising on Uriel’s cheeks. A feeling that was at once part of him and something distant squeezed his head in a vise of pain. He pressed his palms flat against the stone floor to steady himself, and felt Ambrel’s little finger find his own, barely touching.

  What if we’re not—

  A worse thought came.

  What if Ambrel is, and I’m—

  No. He refused to even entertain the thought. They had lived their whole lives a half second apart. There could be no division now.

 
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