Read Rhythm of War by Brandon Sanderson: Chapter Eleven - tor.com

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On November 17, 2020, The Stormlight Archive saga continues in Rhythm of War, the eagerly awaited fourth volume in Brandon Sanderson’s #1 New York Times bestselling fantasy series.

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Chapter 11
Passion and Courage

An iron cage will create an attractor—a fabrial that draws specific elements to itself. A properly created smoke fabrial, for example, can gather the smoke of a fire and hold it close.

New discoveries lead us to believe it is possible to create a repeller fabrial, but we don’t yet know the metal to use to achieve this feat.

—Lecture on fabrial mechanics presented by Navani Kholin to the coalition of monarchs, Urithiru, Jesevan, 1175

“Quickly, up the stairs!” Venli shouted the words to the Rhythm of Command. “The lady returns!”

The servants scrambled up the tower steps. They didn’t need Venli to order them about, but it was expected of her, and she’d gotten very good at playing the role. She didn’t whip them as some might—most of the shanay-im disliked such physical punishments, fortunately—but she did grab Vod out of line and straighten his shirt and sash. He hummed to Appreciation in thanks as she shoved him after the rest.

Last in line, Venli grabbed her scepter and hurried up the steps. The others ahead of her wore workform or nimbleform, so she towered over them in envoyform.

There were a variety of different levels a person could have in the singer culture. Normal people—simply called singers, or common singers—had ordinary forms such as workform or warform. Then there were forms of power, like Venli’s envoyform. This was a level higher in authority and strength, and required taking a Voidspren into your gemheart. That influenced your mind, changed how you perceived the world. These singers were called Regals.

Further up the hierarchy were the Fused. Ancient souls put into a modern body, which extinguished the soul of the host completely. And above them? Mysterious creatures like the thunderclasts and the Unmade. Souls more like spren than people. Venli still didn’t know much about them.

Serving one of the Fused was difficult enough. She hurried up the steps, which wound dizzily around the spire. This wasn’t a proper fortification; it was no more than a column of stone with wooden steps—basically a staircase into the sky. The design reminded her of the tall stone pillar in Narak.

At the top of the spire, she entered a room that gave her vertigo. Open on two sides, the room looked out over the grand city of Kholinar—and there were no railings to prevent a careless worker from toppling a hundred feet to the city streets below. Though the footing was sound, it felt unstable, like a tower of blocks with a too-large capstone, awaiting the inevitable child’s foot.

The storms should have destroyed these tower rooms on first blow. But the Fused had overseen their construction, and so far only one in the line of twenty had been felled by a highstorm and needed to be rebuilt. That one had caused heavy damage to the homes below, of course—but there was little use seeking logic in the ways of the Fused.

Venli stepped to the front of the group of servants, sweating from the protracted climb. Her form of power was slender and tall, with long orange-red hairstrands and delicate carapace along the cheeks and in ridges on the backs of the hands. Not armor; more like ornamentation. It wasn’t a fighting form, more intended to inspire awe—and give her powers to translate text and languages.

Though she was a Regal, she held a secret deep within her gemheart, a friend who protected her from the Voidspren’s influence. Her Radiant spren—Timbre—buzzed softly, comforting her.

Venli scanned the horizon and finally picked out figures approaching as dots in the sky. Though Venli had rushed the others, none would complain. You didn’t question a Regal—and besides, they’d rather be shouted at by Venli than suffer punishment from a Fused. Leshwi was fair, but that did not mean her anger was tame.

Soon the shanay-im—Those Ones of the Heavens—came streaking into the city. Only the most important of them merited tower rooms like this one, and so the majority swooped down toward more conventional housing in the city proper. Leshwi, however, was among Odium’s elite. She wasn’t the most powerful, but was lofty compared even to most Fused.

Part of Leshwi’s favor had to do with her prowess in battle, but Venli suspected an equal measure came because she’d maintained her sanity over the centuries. The same could not be said for many, though the Heavenly Ones had fared better than other kinds of Fused. The nine varieties were called “brands” in their own language, a word evoking the heat of a branding iron, though Venli had seen no such mark on their skin.

Leshwi slowed as she approached, her traveling garb—bright white and red this time—rippling in the wind. It trailed a good thirty feet below and behind her, and she wore her hair loose. She reached her hands to the sides as she landed, and servants immediately came forward to unhook clasps and remove the longer parts of the train. Others brought water and fruit, bowing as they held the bowls toward her.

Leshwi waited for her garments to be unhooked before taking refreshment. She glanced at Venli, but made no sound, so Venli remained where she was—standing tall, holding her scepter. She had long since overcome her initial fears that she’d be found out for the fraud she
was.

Once the long train was removed, other servants helped Leshwi out of the robes. A few servants averted their eyes to see her in her flowing undergarments—but Leshwi didn’t care about mortal feelings of propriety. She didn’t so much as hum a note of Embarrassment, though in this incarnation, the body that had been offered to her was malen.

Indeed, after drinking and being wrapped in her robes of luxury, she sat down to be seen by the barber, who shaved her face after the manner of humans. She hated whiskers, even if the ones she grew when inhabiting a malen body were soft and faint. The Fused exerted some measure of will upon their forms—skin patterns persisted, for example, and some grew carapace in individual patterns. Knowing that, you could easily distinguish the same Fused across multiple incarnations.

Of course, Venli had the advantage of her ability to look into Shadesmar—which immediately told her if someone was Fused, Regal, or ordinary singer. She tried very hard not to use that ability except in the most secret of locations. It would be a disaster of incredible proportions if anyone figured out that Venli—Last Listener, envoyform Regal, Voice of Lady Leshwi—was a Knight Radiant.

Sound thrummed through her. Timbre could read her thoughts—and Venli could read the little spren’s words and intents through the pulsing of her rhythms. In this case, Timbre wanted Venli to acknowledge she was not a Knight Radiant. Not yet, as she’d only said the First Ideal. She had work to do if she wanted to progress.

She acknowledged this quietly; she grew uncomfortable if Timbre pulsed when a Fused was near. There was no telling what might give her away.

Considering that, she pointedly did not look at Dul and Mazish among the servants. At least not until they brought the new recruit forward—a young femalen in workform, bright lines of red marbling her otherwise black skin. Venli hummed to Indifference, pretending to inspect the newcomer—whose name was Shumin—though they’d met several times in secret.

Finally, Venli stepped up to Leshwi, who was still being shaved. Venli waited to be acknowledged—a sign given her when Leshwi hummed to Satisfaction.

“This one,” Venli said, waving to Shumin, “has been determined worthy of service. Your stormsetter needs a new assistant.” The stormsetter made certain Leshwi’s possessions in the High Chamber were packed before each storm, then reset afterward.

Leshwi hummed. Though it was a short beat done to Craving, it meant so much more to Venli. The longer she’d held envoyform, the more remarkable its abilities had become. She could not only speak all languages, she instinctively understood what her mistress said to her through simple humming. In fact, the experience was eerily familiar to the way she understood Timbre—yet she was certain that ability wasn’t related to her form.

Regardless, as Leshwi’s Voice, Venli’s duty was to express the lady’s desires to others.

“The lady wishes to know,” Venli said to Derision, “if this newcomer can embrace the height of the chamber.”

She pointed, and Shumin stepped nervously to the edge of the room, beside the drop-off. The chamber was large enough that, standing among the lady’s furniture at the center, one might be able to ignore how high they were.

Venli strode over and joined Shumin. Here at the edge, there was no pretending or denying. With your toes to the rim, feeling the wind press you from behind as if to shove you off into the sky above the sunlit streets… Venli was not particularly afraid of heights, but part of her wanted to run to the center of the room and hug the floor. People were not meant to be this high. This was the domain of stormclouds and thunder, not singers.

Shumin quaked, drawing some fearspren, but she stood firm. She stared outward, however, and did not look down.

“Passion,” Venli said softly, to Determination—one of the old rhythms. The pure rhythms of Roshar. “Remember that with the Fused, your Passion will do you credit. To hold this post, you must match fear with determination.”

It was the great contradiction of serving the Fused. They did not want simpering children who were too quick to obey, but they also expected exactness in service. They wanted only the strongest of wills among their followers—but wished to control and dominate them.

Shumin hummed to the Rhythm of Winds, then looked down at the city. Venli made her stand an uncomfortable minute, then hummed and turned, walking back. Shumin followed with hasty steps, sweating visibly.

“She seems timid,” Leshwi said to Venli, speaking in their ancient language.

“We are all timid when we begin,” Venli replied. “She will serve well. How can one sing with Passion if never given a chance to learn the proper songs?”

Leshwi took the towel from her barber and wiped her face, then selected a fruit from the bowl offered nearby. She inspected it for flaws. “You are compassionate to them, despite your attempts to appear stiff and stern. I can see the truth in you, Venli, Last Listener.”

If that were so, Venli thought, I would undoubtedly be dead by now.

“I favor compassion,” Leshwi said, “so long as it does not override worthier Passions.” She began eating her fruit, giving instruction in a quick hum.

“You are accepted,” Venli said to Shumin. “Serve with devotion, and you will be taught to speak the words of the gods and sing the rhythms of lost peoples.”

Shumin hummed her pleasure, backing away to join the others. Venli caught the eye of Dul, the stormsetter, and he nodded before fetching the next item of business.

“If I may,” Venli said, turning to Leshwi. “Did you kill him on this excursion?”

There was no need to explain “him.” Leshwi was fascinated by the Windrunners, and in particular their leader—the young man who had forged a group of Radiants without the guidance of god or Herald.

Leshwi finished her fruit before giving a reply. “He was there,” Leshwi said. “And so was his spren, though she did not appear to me. We fought. No conclusion. Though I fear I might not have a chance to face him again.”

Venli hummed to Craving, to indicate her curiosity.

“He killed Lezian, the Pursuer.”

“I do not know that name,” Venli said. With that title, the creature must be one of the Fused. As beings thousands of years old, each one had a lore and history long enough to fill books. It angered them that no one knew them individually this time around.

Indeed, Leshwi spoke to Derision when she replied, “You will. He is newly reawakened, but always worms his way into the stories and minds of mortals. He takes great pride in it.”

And the rest of you don’t? Venli kept the comment in. Leshwi appreciated Passion—but wry comments were entirely different.

“Is there other business for me?” Leshwi asked.

“One other matter,” Venli said, gesturing as Dul arrived with a very frightened woman in tow. A human woman, thin and somewhat scrawny, with long curling eyebrows. She was dressed in the humble clothing of a worker. “You asked me to find a tailor who could experiment with new designs. This one was of that profession once.”

“A human,” Leshwi said. “Curious.”

“You wished for the best,” Venli said. “Our people are learning to excel in many areas, but mastering some professions requires much longer than the year we’ve had. If you wish for an expert tailor, you will need a human.”

Leshwi stood, then rose into the air, her robes of luxury—gold and stark black—trailing beneath her. She hummed a message to Venli.

“The great lady wishes to know your name,” Venli said.

“Yokska, great one,” said the cowering woman.

“You were a tailor?” Venli said, Voicing for Leshwi.

“Yes, once I dressed princes and lighteyes. I know… I know the most current of fashions.”

“Your fashions and clothing will not suit a Fused,” Venli Voiced. “The designs will be unfamiliar to you.”

“I… I live to serve…” Yokska said.

Venli glanced at Leshwi and knew immediately from the lady’s hummed tone that this servant would be rejected. Was it the woman’s mannerisms? Too cowering? Perhaps she didn’t look presentable enough—though Venli had decided against dressing Yokska well, as that could offend the Fused.

“A human will not do,” Leshwi said. “To elevate this one would be to say our people are not good enough. In any case, tell her to stand up and meet my eyes. So many of these are cremlings.”

“Can they be blamed? Other Fused beat humans who meet their eyes.”

Leshwi hummed to Fury, and Venli met the tone with her own. At this, Leshwi smiled. “It is a problem among my kind,” Leshwi admitted. “The nine brands do not present uniform expectations of the humans. But still, this one cannot be my tailor. Already there are comments and questions about the raising of a human to the title of He Who Quiets. I would not heap up fuel for those seeking to prove we are soft. Save your hidden compassion for your own, Voice. But perhaps allow this one to teach a singer wearing artform, so they may learn her skill.”

Venli bowed her head, humming to Subservience. She would have been pleased regardless of the outcome—this was mostly a test to see what her lady thought of the humans. Leshwi spoke so often of the Windrunners, Venli was curious whether she would sympathize with a human of lower station.

“My tasks are done,” Leshwi said. “I will meditate. Empty the High Chamber and see that the new servant is properly trained.” She rose through a hole in the roof, seeking the clouds.

Venli thumped her scepter against the wooden floor, and the other servants began to disperse down the steps. Several helped the human woman.

Venli made Shumin wait. Once everyone was safely on their way, she led the newcomer down the long winding steps to her own room: the guardhouse that one needed to pass through to reach the steps. Venli’s position was, quite literally, the gate one needed to pass in order to approach Leshwi.

Dul waited beside the hatch that closed off access to the steps above. Shumin made as if to speak, but Venli quieted her, waiting until Dul closed the hatch and the window shades. Mazish returned from checking outside, then closed the door behind her. Dul and Mazish were married. Not once-mates, as the listeners would have called it, but married. They had insisted after having their minds restored; they’d been mates while enslaved by the humans, and had adopted Alethi ways.

Venli had a great deal of work to do. She needed to counteract the indoctrination of the Fused and help the singers cast off the traditions of those who had enslaved them. But a cremling did not shed its shell until it had grown too large for it; she hoped her guidance would eventually encourage them to shed—of their own choice—the burdens of both Fused and human society.

“You may speak now,” Venli said to Shumin. Venli changed her rhythm to that of Confidence—one of the old rhythms. The true rhythms, uncorrupted by the touch of Odium.

“Stormfather!” Shumin said, turning to Dul and Mazish. “That was difficult. You didn’t tell me she was going to practically dangle me off the edge!”

“We warned you it would be hard,” Dul said to Reprimand.

“Well, I think I did pretty well otherwise,” Shumin said, looking to Venli. “Right? Brightness, what did you think?”

The change in the femalen’s attitude made Venli sick. She was so… human. From her curses to her way of gesturing when she spoke. But then, those who were most loyal to the Fused were unlikely to join Venli. She would work with what she had.

“I worry you were overly timid,” Venli said. “The Fused do not want weakness, and neither do I. Our organization is formed from those who are strong enough to resist, and eventually break free of, all chains.”

“I’m ready,” Shumin said. “When do we attack the Fused? Each storm I worry I’ll be next, and that one of the waiting Fused souls will boot my mind out and take over.”

It didn’t work that way. Venli had witnessed the transformation; she’d nearly been taken herself. Accepting the soul of a Fused into your body had an element of agency to it.

Agency, however, was difficult to define. If you took a Regal form, Odium got inside your mind. New forms with their new rhythms altered your mannerisms, your way of seeing the world. Even common singers were carefully indoctrinated, constantly told that sacrificing themselves was a great privilege.

This, in the end, was what made Venli decide she needed to try to rebuild her people. The Fused and the humans… there was an equivalency to them. Both sought to take away the minds of common folk. Both were interested solely in the convenience of a useful body, without the accompanying “burden” of a personality, desires, and dreams.

Venli was determined not to do the same. She would accept those who came to her. If she wanted them to change, she would show them a better way. It was Timbre’s suggestion. Volition. Agency. Cardinal tenets of whatever it was she was becoming.

Strange sentiments for one who had once—with a grin on her face—brought death and enslavement to her people. But so be it. She nodded to her friends, who backed away to watch the doors. Venli gestured for Shumin to sit down with her at the small table by the wall, away from the windows.

Before she spoke, Venli checked for spies. She drew a bit of Voidlight from a sphere in her pocket. She could use either of the two types of Light: the strange Voidlight Odium provided, or the old Stormlight of Honor. From what Timbre said, this was new—whatever Venli was doing, it hadn’t been done before.

Eshonai would have been excited by that idea, so Venli tried to take strength from memories of her sister. Using that Light, she peeked into Shadesmar: the Cognitive Realm. Timbre pulsed to Concern. They’d tested Venli’s other power—the ability to mold stone—only once, and it had drawn secretspren. A kind of specialized spren that flew through the city, watching for signs of Knights Radiant using their powers.

She had escaped those secretspren without revealing herself, but it had been close. As long as the secretspren were near, Venli could not practice the full extent of her abilities. Fortunately, this power—the one that let her peek into Shadesmar—did not draw the same attention.

With it, she saw a world overlapping the physical one. The second world was made up of an ocean of beads, a strange sun set too far back in a black sky, and hovering lights. One for every soul. The souls of Fused were dark flames that pulsed like a beating heart. With care, she’d also learned to judge which spren a common singer had bonded to provide their form.

Some Voidspren could hide from the eyes of all except those they wanted to see them—but none could hide from Venli, who could see their traces in Shadesmar. She made certain none were nearby, and that Shumin was not one of the mavset-im, Fused who could imitate the shapes of others. Even other Fused seemed wary of the mavset-im, Those Ones of Masks.

Shumin’s soul was as Venli expected: a common singer soul bonded to a small gravitationspren to take workform.

Venli stopped using her powers. She knew she could travel to that strange world if she wished—but Timbre warned that the place was dangerous for mortals, and it was difficult to return once fully there. Today, looking was enough.

“You must know what we are,” Venli said to Shumin. “And what we are not. We do not seek to overthrow the Fused.”

“But—”

“We are not a rebellion,” Venli said. “We are a group of objectors who do not like the choices we’ve been offered. Fused oppression or human tyranny? The god of hatred or the supposedly honorable god who abandoned us to slavery? We accept neither. We are the listeners. We will cast off everything—including our very forms if we must—to find freedom.

“Once we have enough members, we will leave the city and travel someplace where no one will bother us. We will remain neutral in the conflicts between humans and Fused. Our only goal is to find a place where we can thrive on our own. Our society. Our government. Our rules.”

“But…” Shumin said. “They’re not simply going to let us walk away, right? What safe place is there away from everyone else?”

They were good questions. Venli hummed to Annoyance—at herself, not at Shumin. When her ancestors had first broken away in an ultimate act of bravery and sacrifice, it had been at the end of the wars between humans and singers. The listeners were able to escape in the confusion, a loose thread no one thought to tie up.

This was different. She knew it was.

She leaned forward. “We have two current plans. The first is to find sympathetic Fused and convince them we deserve this privilege. They respect Passion and courage.”

“Yeah, sure, but…” Shumin shrugged in a human way. So casual. “There’s a big difference between respecting Passion and letting someone curse you out. The Fused seem pretty intolerant of people truly disagreeing with them.”

“You’re making a mistake,” Venli said to Reprimand. “You assume the Fused are all of a single mind.”

“They’re the immortal servants of a terrible god.”

“And they’re still people. Each with different hearts, thoughts, and goals. I retain hope that some of them will see what we’re planning as worthy.”

It was a frail hope, Venli admitted to herself. Timbre pulsed within her, agreeing. Leshwi though… the high lady seemed to respect her enemies. She could be brutal, she could be unforgiving, but she could also be thoughtful.

Leshwi said the conquest of Roshar was being undertaken on behalf of the common singer people. Perhaps using similar language, Venli could present her plan for a new listener homeland.

Unfortunately, she feared that the Fused had fought their wars so long that—despite paying lip service to giving the world back to the singers—they no longer saw freedom as the goal. To many of them, the war was for vengeance: the destruction of their enemies, finally proving which side was right. So if Leshwi—who was among both the most sane and the most empathetic of Fused—could not be persuaded, then that left only one option. To run and hide. Venli’s ancestors had shown that courage. She was uncertain, when being honest with herself, whether she had the same moral strength.

Shumin idly played with her hair rather than humming to an emotion as a listener would have. Was that hair-twisting a sign she was bored, perhaps the human way of humming to Skepticism?

“If we must run,” Venli said, “we are not without resources.”

“Forgive me if I’m hesitant, Brightness,” Shumin said. “They summoned rock monsters that were taller than the storming city wall. They have Regals and Fused. I think our sole hope is to get the entire city to turn against them.”

“We have a Regal as well,” Venli said, gesturing to herself. “There is a Voidspren in my gemheart, Shumin, but I have learned to contain and imprison it. It gives me powers, such as the ability to look into Shadesmar, and see if any spren are nearby spying on us.”

“Regal powers…” Shumin said, glancing to the others in the room. “And… I could have them too? Without surrendering my will to Odium?”

“Possibly,” Venli said. “Once I have perfected the process so others can use it.”

Timbre pulsed inside her, disapproving. The little spren wanted Venli to tell the full truth—that she was Radiant. However, the time wasn’t right. Venli wanted to be certain she could offer others what she had before exposing what she was. She needed to be certain other spren like Timbre were willing, and she needed to prepare her friends for the path.

“Long ago,” Venli explained to Shumin, “the singers were allies of the spren. Then humans came, and the wars started. The events of those days are lost to all but the Fused—in the end, however, we know the spren chose humans.

“Eventually, the humans betrayed them. Killed them. Some spren have chosen to give humans a second chance, but others… Well, I have been contacted by a spren who represents an entire people in Shadesmar. They realize that perhaps we deserve a second chance more than humans do.”

“What does that mean?” Shumin asked.

“That we will not be completely without allies, once we make our move,” Venli said. “Our ultimate goal is to find a place where we can escape other people’s rules and their laws. A place where we can be what we wish and cast off the roles forced upon us.”

“I’m in,” Shumin said. “That sounds like a storming delight, Brightness. Maybe… maybe if we have forms of power that aren’t granted by Odium, the enemy will leave us alone.”

Either that or Odium would see that his minions scoured Venli and her faction from the planet.

Timbre pulsed, saying no great work could be accomplished without risk. Venli hated when she said things like that. It reminded her exactly how dangerous her current actions were. She drew in a little Light to check Shadesmar again. She saw nothing spying on her, so—

A dark, pulsing flame was moving down from above.

Leshwi.

Venli leaped to her feet, her chair slamming to the ground. Dul and Mazish noticed her urgency and stood upright, searching around, trying to decide what to do.

“Open the shades!” Venli said. “Quickly! So she doesn’t see anything odd!”

They slammed the windows open right as the hatch rattled. Lady Leshwi—brilliant in her outfit of gold and black—entered, skimming above the steps. She almost never came down here. What was going on?

Timbre trembled inside Venli. They’d been discovered. It had to mean they’d—

“Gather yourself, Last Listener,” Leshwi said to the Rhythm of Agony. “Something is happening. Something dangerous. I fear the war is about to take a distinctly different turn.”

Excerpted from Rhythm of War, copyright ©2020 Dragonsteel Entertainment.


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