The Emperors Soul Excerpt
Enjoy this excerpt from Brandon Sanderson’s novella The Emperor’s Soul, out now from Tachyon Publications.
When Shai is caught replacing the Moon Scepter with her nearly flawless forgery, she must bargain for her life. An assassin has left the Emperor Ashravan without consciousness, a circumstance concealed only by the death of his wife. If the emperor does not emerge after his hundred-day mourning period, the rule of the Heritage Faction will be forfeit and the empire will fall into chaos.
Shai is given an impossible task: to create—to Forge—a new soul for the emperor in less than one hundred days while trapped behind a door sealed in her own blood.
Gaotona ran his fingers across the thick canvas, inspecting one of the greatestworks of art he had ever seen. Unfortunately, it was a lie.
“The woman is a danger.” Hissed voices came from behind him. “What she does is an abomination.”
Gaotona tipped the canvas toward the hearth’s orange-red light, squinting. In his old age, his eyes weren’t what they had once been. Such precision,he thought, inspecting the brush strokes, feeling the layers of thick oils. Exactly like those in the original.
He would never have spotted the mistakes on his own. A blossom slightly out of position. A moon that was just a sliver too low in the sky. It had taken their experts days of detailed inspection to find the errors.
“She is one of the best Forgers alive.” The voices belonged to Gaotona’s fellow arbiters, the empire’s most important bureaucrats. “She has a reputation as wide as the empire. We need to execute her as an example.”
“No.” Frava, leader of the arbiters, had a sharp, nasal voice. “She is a valuable tool. This woman can save us. We must use her.”
Why?Gaotona thought again. Why would someone capable of this artistry, this majesty, turn to forgery? Why not create original paintings? Why not be a true artist?
I must understand.
“Yes,” Frava continued, “the woman is a thief, and she practices a horrid art. But I can control her, and with her talents we can fix this mess we have found ourselves in.”
The others murmured worried objections. The woman they spoke of, Wan ShaiLu, was more than a simple con artist. So much more. She could change the nature of reality itself. That raised another question. Why would she bother learning to paint? Wasn’t ordinary art mundane compared to her mystical talents?
So many questions. Gaotona looked up from his seat beside the hearth. The others stood in a conspiratorial clump around Frava’s desk, their long, colorful robes shimmering in the firelight. “I agree with Frava,” Gaotona said.
The others glanced at him. Their scowls indicated they cared little for what he said, but their postures told a different tale. Their respect for him was buried deep, but it was remembered.
“Send for the Forger,” Gaotona said, rising. “I would hear what she has to say. I suspect she will be more difficult to control than Frava claims, but we have no choice. We either use this woman’s skill, or we give up control of the empire.”
The murmurs ceased. How many years had it been since Frava and Gaotona had agreed on anything at all, let alone on something so divisive as making use of the Forger?
One by one, the other three arbiters nodded.
“Let it be done,” Frava said softly.
Shai pressed her fingernail into one of the stone blocks of her prison cell. The rock gave way slightly. She rubbed the dust between her fingers. Limestone. An odd material for use in a prison wall, but the whole wall wasn’t of limestone, merely that single vein within the block.
She smiled. Limestone. That little vein had been easy to miss, but if she was right about it, she had finally identified all forty-four types of rock in the wall of her circular pit of a prison cell. Shai knelt down beside her bunk, using a fork—she’d bent back all of the tines but one—to carve notes into the wood of one bed leg. Without her spectacles, she had to squint as she wrote.
To Forge something, you had to know its past, its nature. She was almost ready. Her pleasure quickly slipped away, however, as she noticed another set of markings on the bed leg, lit by her flickering candle. Those kept track of her days of imprisonment.
So little time, she thought. If her count was right, only a day remained before the date set for her public execution.
Deep inside, her nerves were drawn as tight as strings on an instrument. One day. One day remaining to create a soulstamp and escape. But she had no soulstone, only a crude piece of wood, and her only tool for carving was a fork.
It would be incredibly difficult. That was the point. This cell was meant for one of her kind, built of stones with many different veins of rock in them to make them difficult to Forge. They would come from different quarries and each have unique histories. Knowing as little as she did, Forging them would be nearly impossible. And even if she did transform the rock, there was probably some other failsafe to stop her.
Nights! What a mess she’d gotten herself into.
Notes finished, she found herself looking at her bent fork. She’d begun carving the wooden handle, after prying off the metal portion, as a crude soulstamp. You’re not going to get out this way, Shai, she told herself. You need another method.
She’d waited six days, searching for another way out. Guards to exploit, someone to bribe, a hint about the nature of her cell. So far, nothing had—
Far above, the door to the dungeons opened.
Shai leaped to her feet, tucking the fork handle into her waistband at the small of her back. Had they moved up her execution?
Heavy boots sounded on the steps leading into the dungeon, and she squinted at the newcomers who appeared above her cell. Four were guards, accompanying a man with long features and fingers. A Grand, the race who led the empire. That robe of blue and green indicated a minor functionary who had passed the tests for government service, but not risen high in its ranks.
Shai waited, tense.
The Grand leaned down to look at her through the grate. He paused for just a moment, then waved for the guards to unlock it. “The arbiters wish to interrogate you, Forger.”
Shai stood back as they opened her cell’s ceiling, then lowered a ladder. She climbed, wary. If she were going to take someone to an early execution, she’d have let the prisoner think something else was happening, so she wouldn’t resist. However, they didn’t lock Shai in manacles as they marched her out of the dungeons.
Judging by their route, they did indeed seem to be taking her toward the arbiters’ study. Shai composed herself. A new challenge, then. Dared she hope for an opportunity? She shouldn’t have been caught, but she could do nothing about that now. She had been bested, betrayed by the Imperial Fool when she’d assumed she could trust him. He had taken her copy of the Moon Scepter and swapped it for the original, then run off.
Shai’s Uncle Won had taught her that being bested was a rule of life. No matter how good you were, someone was better. Live by that knowledge, and you would never grow so confident that you became sloppy.
Last time she had lost. This time she would win. She abandoned all sense of frustration at being captured and became the person who could deal with this new chance, whatever it was. She would seize it and thrive.
This time, she played not for riches, but for her life.
The guards were Strikers—or, well, that was the Grand name for them. They had once called themselves Mulla’dil, but their nation had been folded into the empire so long ago that few used the name. Strikers were a tall people with a lean musculature and pale skin. They had hair almost as dark as Shai’s, though theirs curled while hers lay straight and long. She tried with some success not to feel dwarfed by them. Her people, the MaiPon, were not known for their stature.
“You,” she said to the lead Striker as she walked at the front of the group. “I remember you.” Judging by that styled hair, the youthful captain did not often wear a helmet. Strikers were well regarded by the Grands, and their Elevation was not unheard of. This one had a look of eagerness to him. That polished armor, that crisp air. Yes, he fancied himself bound for important things in the future.
“The horse,” Shai said. “You threw me over the back of your horse after I was captured. Tall animal, Gurish descent, pure white. Good animal. You know your horseflesh.”
The Striker kept his eyes forward, but whispered under his breath, “I’m going to enjoy killing you, woman.”
Lovely, Shai thought as they entered the Imperial Wing of the palace. The stonework here was marvelous, after the ancient Lamio style, with tall pillars of marble inlaid with reliefs. Those large urns between the pillars had been created to mimic Lamio pottery from long ago.
Actually, she reminded herself, the Heritage Faction still rules, so . . .
The emperor would be from that faction, as would the council of five arbiters who did much of the actual ruling. Their faction lauded the glory and learning of past cultures, even going so far as to rebuild their wing of the palace as an imitation of an ancient building. Shai suspected that on the bottoms of those “ancient” urns would be soulstamps that had transformed them into perfect imitations of famous pieces.
Yes, the Grands called Shai’s powers an abomination, but the only aspect of it that was technically illegal was creating a Forgery to change a person. Quiet Forgery of objects was allowed, even exploited, in the empire so long as the Forger was carefully controlled. If someone were to turn over one of those urns and remove the stamp on the bottom, the piece would become simple unornamented pottery.
The Strikers led her to a door with gold inlay. As it opened, she managed to catch a glimpse of the red soulstamp on the bottom inside edge, transforming the door into an imitation of some work from the past. The guards ushered her into a homey room with a crackling hearth, deep rugs, and stained wood furnishings. Fifth century hunting lodge, she guessed.
All five arbiters of the Heritage Faction waited inside. Three—two women, one man—sat in tall-backed chairs at the hearth. One other woman occupied the desk just inside the doors: Frava, senior among the arbiters of the Heritage Faction, was probably the most powerful person in the empire other than Emperor Ashravan himself. Her greying hair was woven into a long braid with gold and red ribbons; it draped a robe of matching gold. Shai had long pondered how to rob this woman, as—among her duties—Frava oversaw the Imperial Gallery and had offices adjacent to it.
Frava had obviously been arguing with Gaotona, the elderly male Grand standing beside the desk. He stood up straight and clasped his hands behind his back in a thoughtful pose. Gaotona was eldest of the ruling arbiters. He was said to be the least influential among them, out of favor with the emperor.
Both fell silent as Shai entered. They eyed her as if she were a cat that had just knocked over a fine vase. Shai missed her spectacles, but took care not to squint as she stepped up to face these people; she needed to look as strong as possible.
“Wan ShaiLu,” Frava said, reaching to pick up a sheet of paper from the desk. “You have quite the list of crimes credited to your name.”
The way you say that . . . What game was this woman playing? She wants something of me, Shai decided. That is the only reason to bring me in like this.
The opportunity began to unfold.
“Impersonating a noblewoman of rank,” Frava continued, “breaking into the palace’s Imperial Gallery, reForging your soul, and of course the attempted theft of the Moon Scepter. Did you really assume that we would fail to recognize a simple forgery of such an important imperial possession?”
Apparently, Shai thought, you have done just that, assuming that the Fool escaped with the original. It gave Shai a little thrill of satisfaction to know that her forgery now occupied the Moon Scepter’s position of honor in the Imperial Gallery.
“And what of this?” Frava said, waving long fingers for one of the Strikers to bring something from the side of the room. A painting, which the guard placed on the desk. Han ShuXen’s masterpiece Lily of the Spring Pond.
“We found this in your room at the inn,” Frava said, tapping her fingers on the painting. “It is a copy of a painting I myself own, one of the most famous in the empire. We gave it to our assessors, and they judge that your forgery was amateur at best.”
Shai met the woman’s eyes.
“Tell me why you have created this forgery,” Frava said, leaning forward. “You were obviously planning to swap this for the painting in my office by the Imperial Gallery. And yet, you were striving for the Moon Scepter itself. Why plan to steal the painting too? Greed?”
“My uncle Won,” Shai said, “told me to always have a backup plan. I couldn’t be certain the scepter would even be on display.”
“Ah . . .” Frava said. She adopted an almost maternal expression, though it was laden with loathing—hidden poorly—and condescension. “You requested arbiter intervention in your execution, as most prisoners do. I decided on a whim to agree to your request because I was curious why you had created this painting.” She shook her head. “But child, you can’t honestly believe we’d let you free. With sins like this? You are in a monumentally bad predicament, and our mercy can only be extended so far . . .”
Shai glanced toward the other arbiters. The ones seated near the fireplace seemed to be paying no heed, but they did not speak to one another. They were listening. Something is wrong, Shai thought. They’re worried.
Gaotona still stood just to the side. He inspected Shai with eyes that betrayed no emotion.
Frava’s manner had the air of one scolding a small child. The lingering end of her comment was intended to make Shai hope for release. Together, that was meant to make her pliable, willing to agree to anything in the hope that she’d be freed.
An opportunity indeed . . .
It was time to take control of this conversation.
“You want something from me,” Shai said. “I’m ready to discuss my payment.”
“Your payment?” Frava asked. “Girl, you are to be executed on the morrow! If we did wish something of you, the payment would be your life.”
“My life is my own,” Shai said. “And it has been for days now.”
“Please,” Frava said. “You were locked in the Forger’s cell, with thirty different kinds of stone in the wall.”
“Forty-four kinds, actually.”
Gaotona raised an appreciative eyebrow.
Nights! I’m glad I got that right . . .
Shai glanced at Gaotona. “You thought I wouldn’t recognize the grindstone, didn’t you? Please. I’m a Forger. I learned stone classification during my first year of training. That block was obviously from the Laio quarry.”
Frava opened her mouth to speak, a slight smile to her lips.
“Yes, I know about the plates of ralkalest, the unForgeable metal, hidden behind the rock wall of my cell,” Shai guessed. “The wall was a puzzle, meant to distract me. You wouldn’t actually make a cell out of rocks like limestone, just in case a prisoner gave up on Forgery and tried to chip their way free. You built the wall, but secured it with a plate of ralkalest at the back to cut off escape.”
Frava snapped her mouth shut.
“The problem with ralkalest,” Shai said, “is that it’s not a very strong metal. Oh, the grate at the top of my cell was solid enough, and I couldn’t have gotten through that. But a thin plate? Really. Have you heard of anthracite?”
“It is a rock that burns,” Gaotona said.
“You gave me a candle,” Shai said, reaching into the small of her back. She tossed her makeshift wooden soulstamp onto the desk. “All I had to do was Forge the wall and persuade the stones that they’re anthracite—not a difficult task, once I knew the forty-four types of rock. I could burn them, and they’d melt that plate behind the wall.”
Shai pulled over a chair, seating herself before the desk. She leaned back. Behind her, the captain of the Strikers growled softly, but Frava drew her lips to a line and said nothing. Shai let her muscles relax, and she breathed a quiet prayer to the Unknown God.
Nights! It looked like they’d actually bought it. She’d worried they’d know enough of Forgery to see through her lie.
“I was going to escape tonight,” Shai said, “but whatever it is you want me to do must be important, as you’re willing to involve a miscreant like myself. And so we come to my payment.”
“I could still have you executed,” Frava said. “Right now. Here.”
“But you won’t, will you?”
Frava set her jaw.
“I warned you that she would be difficult to manipulate,” Gaotona said to Frava. Shai could tell she’d impressed him, but at the same time, his eyes seemed . . . sorrowful? Was that the right emotion? She found this aged man as difficult to read as a book in Svordish.
Frava raised a finger, then swiped it to the side. A servant approached with a small, cloth-wrapped box. Shai’s heart leaped upon seeing it.
The man clicked the latches open on the front and raised the top. The case was lined with soft cloth and inset with five depressions made to hold soulstamps. Each cylindrical stone stamp was as long as a finger and as wide as a large man’s thumb. The leatherbound notebook set in the case atop them was worn by long use; Shai breathed in a hint of its familiar scent.
They were called Essence Marks, the most powerful kind of soulstamp. Each Essence Mark had to be attuned to a specific individual, and was intended to rewrite their history, personality, and soul for a short time. These five were attuned to Shai.
“Five stamps to rewrite a soul,” Frava said. “Each is an abomination, illegal to possess. These Essence Marks were to be destroyed this afternoon. Even if you had escaped, you’d have lost these. How long does it take to create one?”
“Years,” Shai whispered.
There were no other copies. Notes and diagrams were too dangerous to leave, even in secret, as such things gave others too much insight to one’s soul. She never let these Essence Marks out of her sight, except on the rare occasion they were taken from her.
“You will accept these as payment?” Frava asked, lips turned down, as if discussing a meal of slime and rotted meat.
Frava nodded, and the servant snapped the case closed. “Then let me show you what you are to do.”
Shai had never met an emperor before, let alone poked one in the face.
Emperor Ashravan of the Eighty Suns—forty-ninth ruler of the Rose Empire—did not respond as Shai prodded him. He stared ahead blankly, his round cheeks rosy and hale, but his expression completely lifeless.
“What happened?” Shai asked, straightening from beside the emperor’s bed. It was in the style of the ancient Lamio people, with a headboard shaped like a phoenix rising toward heaven. She’d seen a sketch of such a headboard in a book; likely the Forgery had been drawn from that source.
“Assassins,” Arbiter Gaotona said. He stood on the other side of the bed, alongside two surgeons. Of the Strikers, only their captain—Zu—had been allowed to enter. “The murderers broke in two nights ago, attacking the emperor and his wife. She was slain. The emperor received a crossbow bolt to the head.”
“That considered,” Shai noted, “he’s looking remarkable.”
“You are familiar with resealing?” Gaotona asked.
“Vaguely,” Shai said. Her people called it Flesh Forgery. Using it, a surgeon of great skill could Forge a body to remove its wounds and scars. It required great specialization. The Forger had to know each and every sinew, each vein and muscle, in order to accurately heal.
Resealing was one of the few branches of Forgery that Shai hadn’t studied in depth. Get an ordinary forgery wrong, and you created a work of poor artistic merit. Get a Flesh Forgery wrong, and people died.
“Our resealers are the best in the world,” Frava said, walking around the foot of the bed, hands behind her back. “The emperor was attended to quickly following the assassination attempt. The wound to his head was healed, but . . .”
“But his mind was not?” Shai asked, waving her hand in front of the man’s face again. “It doesn’t sound like they did a very good job at all.”
One of the surgeons cleared his throat. The diminutive man had ears like window shutters that had been thrown open wide on a sunny day. “Resealing repairs a body and makes it anew. That, however, is much like rebinding a book with fresh paper following a fire. Yes, it may look exactly the same, and it may be whole all the way through. The words, though . . . the words are gone. We have given the emperor a new brain. It is merely empty.”
“Huh,” Shai said. “Did you find out who tried to kill him?”
The five arbiters exchanged glances. Yes, they knew.
“We are not certain,” Gaotona said.
“Meaning,” Shai added, “you know, but you couldn’t prove it well enough to make an accusation. One of the other factions in court, then?”
Gaotona sighed. “The Glory Faction.”
Shai whistled softly, but it did make sense. If the emperor died, there was a good chance that the Glory Faction would win a bid to elevate his successor. At forty, Emperor Ashravan was young still, by Grand standards. He had been expected to rule another fifty years.
If he were replaced, the five arbiters in this room would lose their positions—which, by imperial politics, would be a huge blow to their status. They’d drop from being the most powerful people in the world to being among the lowest of the empire’s eighty factions.
“The assassins did not survive their attack,” Frava said. “The Glory Faction does not yet know whether their ploy succeeded. You are going to replace the emperor’s soul with . . .” She took a deep breath. “With a Forgery.”
They’re crazy, Shai thought. Forging one’s own soul was difficult enough, and you didn’t have to rebuild it from the ground up.
The arbiters had no idea what they were asking. But of course they didn’t. They hated Forgery, or so they claimed. They walked on imitation floor tiles past copies of ancient vases, they let their surgeons repair a body, but they didn’t call any of these things “Forgery” in their own tongue.
The Forgery of the soul, that was what they considered an abomination. Which meant Shai really was their only choice. No one in their own government would be capable of this. She probably wasn’t either.
“Can you do it?” Gaotona asked.
I have no idea, Shai thought. “Yes,” she said.
“It will need to be an exact Forgery,” Frava said sternly. “If the Glory Faction has any inkling of what we’ve done, they will pounce. The emperor must not act erratically.”
“I said I could do it,” Shai replied. “But it will be difficult. I will need information about Ashravan and his life, everything we can get. Official histories will be a start, but they’ll be too sterile. I will need extensive interviews and writings about him from those who knew him best. Servants, friends, family members. Did he have a journal?”
“Yes,” Gaotona said.
“Those documents are sealed,” said one of the other arbiters. “He wanted them destroyed . . .”
Everyone in the room looked toward the man. He swallowed, then looked down.
“You shall have everything you request,” Frava said.
“I’ll need a test subject as well,” Shai said. “Someone to test my Forgeries on. A Grand, male, someone who was around the emperor a lot and who knew him. That will let me see if I have the personality right.” Nights! Getting the personality right would be secondary. Getting a stamp that actually took . . . that would be the first step. She wasn’t certain she could manage even that much. “And I’ll need soulstone, of course.”
Frava regarded Shai, arms folded.
“You can’t possibly expect me to do this without soulstone,” Shai said drily. “I could carve a stamp out of wood, if I had to, but your goal will be difficult enough as it is. Soulstone. Lots of it.”
“Fine,” Frava said. “But you will be watched these three months. Closely.”
“Three months?” Shai said. “I’m planning for this to take at least two years.”
“You have a hundred days,” Frava said. “Actually, ninety-eight, now.”
“The official explanation for why the emperor hasn’t been seen these last two days,” said one of the other arbiters, “is that he’s been in mourning for the death of his wife. The Glory Faction will assume we are scrambling to buy time following the emperor’s death. Once the hundred days of isolation are finished, they will demand that Ashravan present himself to the court. If he does not, we are finished.”
And so are you, the woman’s tone implied.
“I will need gold for this,” Shai said. “Take what you’re thinking I’ll demand and double it. I will walk out of this country rich.”
“Done,” Frava said.
Too easy, Shai thought. Delightful. They were planning to kill her once this was done.
Well, that gave her ninety-eight days to find a way out. “Get me those records,” she said. “I’ll need a place to work, plenty of supplies, and my things back.” She held up a finger before they could complain. “Not my Essence Marks, but everything else. I’m not going to work for three months in the same clothing I’ve been wearing while in prison. And, as I consider it, have someone draw me a bath immediately.”
The Emperor’s Soul copyright © 2012 Dragonsteel Entertainment, LLC