Read an Excerpt From The Blind King’s Wrath

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The Demonlord Jarsun is poised to claim the Burning Throne and cement his rule over the Burnt Empire.

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Blind King’s Wrath, the final chapter of Ashok K. Banker’s Burnt Empire Saga, out now from Harper Voyager.

The Demonlord Jarsun is poised to claim the Burning Throne and cement his rule over the Burnt Empire. Standing in his way is his daughter, now reincarnated into a new avatar named Krushni, who is determined to avenge her mother’s death by his hand—and put an end to her father’s reign of terror once and for all. Aligned with him is the vast army of the Empire, the One Hundred children of Emperor Adri, and their former guru, the legendary warrior Dronas.

Krushni has allies too. Also opposing the tyrant Jarsun are the children of his nephew Shvate—the supernaturally-gifted quintet known as the Five. But Krushni and The Five are vastly outnumbered, while other rogue individuals like Ladislew, the warrior-witch, serve their own secret agendas.

 

 

Karni

1

Mayla hacked at the assassin.

The sword met only air.

She screamed and swung again and yet again, but Jarsun was long gone, vanished through the portal and now a thousand miles away, or a thousand worlds distant, only a few threads of fabric from his cloak, a spot of blood, and exotic odors from a distant realm marking his passage.

Mayla sank to the floor of the hut, weeping, her sword slipping from her hands. A roar of grief tore itself from her throat, filling the hut, the clearing, the whole forest with her agony. Her children echoed her rage and grief, weeping, hitching their breaths, their little heads shaking in disbelief and denial. Only little Brum, fierce and resistant as always, clenched her fists and ground her teeth in fury, like a maddened wolf.

Karni’s ears heard her sister wife’s grief, but she herself felt too many strange conflicting emotions to yield to the same impulses. Instead, she watched and listened, curiously detached in this moment of devastation. An observer in her own home. Witness to her own life’s ruin.

Mayla’s weeping was echoed by the shrill cries and shouts of five young throats. The children of Mayla, Karni, and Shvate approached the prostrate body of their father, their little arms raised, or held out, or clasped around their chests in panic, striving to make sense of this madness.

The only other person in the hut, standing by the open doorway, a hand raised to cover half his face, the other hand outstretched against the wall to support himself, was Vida, Shvate’s half brother, who had come from Hastinaga to warn them. Warn them of another attack, this one a supernatural one perpetrated by Jarsun. He had been as easily deceived as they were when Jarsun appeared in the form of Vessa and assassinated Shvate.

Never a fighter or man of action, he had watched helplessly as Jarsun slew Shvate in the blink of an eye, with just a single slash of his fingertips delivering five tiny but potent snakebites that carried instant death. Vida stared down in bewildered shock and grief at the very tragedy he had sought to warn them against, and hopefully avoid.

Karni’s husband, Shvate, still lay sprawled where he had fallen, his face and neck bulging from the five snakebites received from Jarsun’s fingertips, his upper body from the chest upward turning a garish blue as the poisoned blood cooled in his veins. An albino since birth, he had been named for his condition—Shvate meant “white-skinned or colorless one” in Ashcrit—and the toxic blue of the venom in contrast to his otherwise pale color was more shocking than blood. His eyes lay open, translucent pupils staring blankly up at the ceiling of the hut.

Karni was in shock. Frozen to the spot. She could not bring herself to think, to acknowledge, to believe. Surely this had not just happened. It was a dream, was it not? A terrible, strange, nightmarish delusion…

They had built this hut together, Mayla and Karni and Shvate, using only the materials of the jungle, their blades, and bare hands.

Karni looked around at her ruined life, at the rustic but clean hut and its meager items: straw pallets for beds, wooden blocks for stools, a thatched roof that leaked during the rainy season and inevitably collapsed and had to be rebuilt after the autumn storms; her sister wife, Mayla, weeping and prostrate with grief; the five children they had birthed together.

They had left Hastinaga with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and yet they had managed to find happiness here in exile, she thought.

We built a home here in the wilderness. We built a house with mud, straw, timber, and love, and made it a home. We filled it with our laughter, our despair, our hopes, our sorrows, our love.

And in a single instant, one man walked in and burned it all down.

No. Not a man.

Jarsun.

Enemy of his own kith and kin.

Shvate’s own blood relative, exiled from the Burnt Empire on pain of death for his transgressions and crimes committed decades ago, in the reign of Emperor Shapar, father of Sha’ant and Vessa and, from an earlier liaison, of Jarsun himself.

Karni tried to remember the complex genealogy of her dead husband’s family tree and gave up almost at once. What did it matter if Jarsun was a great-uncle or great-whatever? He was kin to Shvate, an elder of the family, a fellow Krushan, sharing the same relationship to stonefire as Shvate. Their only conflict had been as players of the game of war, back when Shvate had still served his duties as prince of Hastinaga, leading the armies of the Burnt Empire against Jarsun’s forces in several clashes: the Battle of the Rebels and the Battle of Reygar being the two most notable. Shvate had left that service behind him when he abdicated his claim to the Burning Throne, handing over sole control to his brother Adri before he went into lifelong self-exile with his two wives years ago.

Why come after Shvate now? Why disguise himself as Vessa, his own half brother and Shvate’s biological father? Why not as Vida, or as… as anybody?

What did it matter?

What did anything matter now?

Shvate was dead.

Her husband, her lover, her friend, her wonderful, inspiring, despairing, beautiful, infuriating-at-times, but also charming-when-he-tried, Shvate, beloved Shvate, was dead.

Her mouth filled with the ashes of despair, her heart swelled with pain, her body screamed vengeance.

But first, she had work to do.

She alone, because Mayla, ever the quickest of temper and fastest of sword and foot, had already shot her arrows of endurance and emptied her quiver. She was a broken mess, weeping and wallowing in the black waters of grief.

The children were… They were children. Babies, really. All of an age, none even three years on this earth as yet.

And Vida. Vida was a guest, a visitor, a friend; he would soon depart for Hastinaga, carrying with him the sorrow of Shvate’s passing, leaving behind his commiserations and sympathy, but little more. He did not share their exile, their life, their circumstances. He would advise and help from afar, but he could not do much more at this moment of crisis.

It was all up to Karni.

She was the strong one, the pillar, the stanchion of this family.

She was the only one who could carry them through this.

“Mayla,” she said softly, bending to touch her sister wife. Mayla’s back shuddered beneath her fingertips, her body racked by all-consuming sobs. She was so far into her own mourning, she seemed not even to be aware of her children, wailing and crying beside her.

“Mayla,” Karni repeated, louder and more firmly.

Movement by the doorway: Vida lurching outside, a darker silhouette against the dull gloam of dusk. Then the sound of his retching as he purged his belly outside their threshold. At least he was thoughtful enough not to soil our home, Karni thought with ice-cold clarity.

Mayla’s sobbing continued unabated.

Karni bent down and took the younger woman by her shoulders. Gripping tightly, she hauled her to her feet. Mayla’s knees buckled, but Karni was strong enough to hold her upright. She looked her in the eye. Mayla’s face was smeared with tears, her eyes brimming, lips parted soundlessly.

“I need you to help me with the children,” Karni said.

Mayla wailed. “Shvate…”

Karni resisted the temptation to shake or slap her. Instead, she moved her grip from Mayla’s shoulders to her head, grasping it on either side, pressing her thumbs against the woman’s temples.

“Listen to me,” Karni said, hearing her own voice, steel-hard and sword-sharp, yet low enough that it would not alarm the children further. “There will be time to grieve later. Right now, we are all in danger. This may not be the end of Jarsun’s attack. We have to protect the children and get them to safety right away.”

Mayla seemed to come into herself for a moment. Her eyes focused on Karni and saw her briefly through her fog of tears and pain. “Shvate…” she moaned.

“Is gone, yes. I grieve for him too. But now is not the time for grief. Now is the time to survive. To protect ourselves. To stay alive.”

Mayla stared at her, and Karni felt a rush of relief as she seemed to be calming down. “Alive,” Mayla repeated. “Alive…”

Mayla looked down at the body of Shvate, now almost entirely blue from the venom, his face and throat swollen and bulging obscenely, purpling in patches. Her eyes widened at the alarming rapid deterioration. She shook her head vehemently. “I don’t want to be alive,” she said in a perfectly sober voice. “I don’t want to live with Shvate dead. I don’t want to live.”

“Shut up,” Karni said softly, dangerously. “Don’t talk like that in front of the children. Look at them. They’re devastated. They just saw their father murdered, and they’re still babies. They need us. We need to act quickly and keep our heads clear. More trouble may already be coming for us. For them.”

Mayla stared at her as if she were a stranger met for the first time. Her eyes drifted downward again. Karni caught her chin and forced it up, compelling her to keep looking at her.

“Get hold of yourself. You are not just a wife. You’re a mother. Your children—our children—need you. I need you. I can’t do this alone, Mayla. Those five are a handful on any given day. It will take both of us to pull them away from their father. Wake up, Mayla!”

These last three words were not spoken in a raised voice. Karni’s pitch remained level, her tone urgent. She was still unwilling to pour more emotion and conflict into this already brimming home. But she could see that she was not getting through to Mayla. The younger woman was too far gone in her grief.

She’s young and brash, Karni thought. She thought she had lost Shvate before, when they were cursed by the sage. Then, again, when Shvate tried to take his own life. When he survived both times, and we continued to live together and the children were born, and then we got busy with nursing them and raising them, they filled our lives completely. She found comfort and security in our little world, our family.

Now that world is shattered, the family broken. Of all the things that could possibly have gone wrong, this was the one thing she thought she had triumphed over. Ever a warrior, she only knows victory and defeat. She thought Shvate and she had snatched victory out of the jaws of death, not just during the battles and fights they fought shoulder to shoulder, but in these past few years of peacetime as well.

To lose him now is the one thing she was not prepared to accept, to endure. It will break her. She will never be the same again. But that doesn’t matter. All that matters is the children and their survival, and for that, I need her to hold herself together, if not emotionally, then mentally and physically at least.

The instant she released Mayla, the younger woman folded into herself on the floor, like a wet cloak fallen from the clothesline. She lay in a crumpled heap, weeping the deep, desolate tears of someone who has surrendered all hope, all reason, all sense.

Karni picked up her sword and pointed it at Mayla, who seemed not to notice.

She jabbed the point of the sword into Mayla’s side, fleshier since the children, even with the meager fare they had to eat in this wilderness.

A warrior born and raised, Mayla had little time to even practice her usual routines with Shvate as they had once all done together. With five little ones to manage and a forest full of potential dangers and unknown enemies abroad, they had needed to be constantly vigilant. That was apart from their never-ending daily chores and duties. It was hard to manage a household, raise little children, and survive in the forest, as well as keep up the rigorous training regime required of a master warrior. While not fat—their forest repast hardly allowed for indulgences—Mayla had softened considerably since the days when Shvate and she had gone on campaigns together.

Karni pricked that fleshy side with deliberate force, enough to draw blood and be keenly felt without causing any real damage. She might not be as veteran a warrior as Mayla or Shvate, but she had received good training during her childhood and youth at Stonecastle, and she knew basic anatomy well enough.

Mayla started at the sword prick, jerking upright. Her hair had fallen over her face, and her eyes, red-rimmed and brimful, stared up at her attacker wildly.

“You cut me!” she cried indignantly.

Karni raised the sword to point at Mayla’s throat. “Yes, and I’ll do it again, and again, until you listen.”

As the point of the sword drifted upward, Mayla reacted.

Her hand shot out, slapping the flat of the blade with enough force that it jerked like a living thing in Karni’s hands. Even though she had been expecting it, she still felt her wrists creak.

Mayla kicked Karni’s feet out from under her.

Karni fell clumsily, banging her hip on the mud floor, catching herself in time to avoid striking the back of her head. She felt the sword snatched away and could do nothing to prevent it.

In a trice, Mayla stood over her, holding the sword to Karni’s throat.

“You cut me!” Mayla said again, her eyes flashing through the folds of the curtain of disheveled hair.

Karni smiled with a twinge of bitterness, even though her hip was crying out and her husband’s body lay, still warm and cooling, only a few feet away. She knew she wasn’t badly hurt, just as Mayla’s wound would stop bleeding in a few minutes on its own.

“That’s the Mayla I need right now,” she said grimly. “Now, help me up, and let’s do what must be done.”

 

Excerpted from The Blind King’s Wrath, copyright © 2022 by Ashok K. Banker.

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