Note: It’s best if you have read The Emperor’s Soul before you read this deleted prologue.
Shai pressed her fingernail into one of the stone blocks of her prison cell. The stone gave way slightly. She rubbed the dust between her fingers, frowning. “Limestone?” she asked softly. “Who makes a cell out of limestone?”
Of course, the whole cell wasn’t of limestone, merely that single block. Shai had counted twenty-seven different kinds of stone so far, including several she didn’t know the names of. That would make escape tough. Very tough.
This was a cell that had been designed to hold a Forger. She 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 leg. She’d engraved a crosswork pattern on another side, with numbers representing the stones of the back wall of her cell. Without her spectacles, she had to squint to see what she’d carved there.
She wrote out, with some difficulty, the word limestone in the key representing the stone block she’d just identified. “Honestly,” she growled as she worked. “They sentence a girl to death. They could at least give her a sheet of paper.”
“A sheet of paper?” The amused voice came from outside the cell. “You actually asked for one?”
Shai jumped at the voice, standing and tucking her hand behind her back to hide the fork. Stealing that had been unpleasant. If she lost it . . .
But it was only the court fool. The man’s hawkish face was capped by a three-pointed jester’s crown, though his was of simple white and black, not the traditional brazen colors. He wore a black coat, long and flowing, almost like one of the Grands. He shouldn’t have been able to get away with such deviations; the Grands liked their fools on the silly side of ridiculous.
“Come to mock me?” Shai snapped, turning back to her carving.
“I don’t mock the condemned,” the Fool said from beyond the cell bars. “Did you really ask them for paper, Shai?”
“I’ve been sentenced to death. They’re supposed to meet my requests during my last week of life. It’s traditional.”
“You’re a master Forger,” he replied. “Giving you paper would be like handing a sword to a captive soldier who asked for one politely.”
She snorted, counting up blocks on the wall, then carving out a few more notes. “I can’t do much with only paper.”
If she had soulstone, now . . .
“It’s the principle of the thing, I suspect,” the Fool said, still sounding amused. How wonderful that her life, and its impending end, could bring pleasure to the Imperial Fool.
“There are forty-four kinds of stone in the wall, you know,” he said.
She spun. “You know them?”
He’d taken to leaning back against the wall, arms folded, cleaning out one fingernail with another. “Top left, the one you’ve been trying so long to figure out, that’s grindstone from a quarry in Laio.”
“Tell me the others,” Shai said, dropping the fork and pressing up against the bars. “Fool, tell me what they are.”
“I could,” he said. “But would that really help? Assuming you knew all forty-four, assuming you knew their histories and the quarries they came from, what would you do? Create a seal for the wall in just two days? Carve yourself a soulstamp out of . . .what? Wood? Even if you had the proper stone, you’d use a fork to etch it?”
Shai looked down at the fork, dropped behind on the ground.
“The wall is a challenge, Shai,” the Fool said.
She closed her eyes. She’d known it, deep down. A wall of patchwork stones? It was a puzzle meant to occupy a Forger. Something to make them spend their time, and make them forget, for a little while, about the noose . . .
But what else was she to do? Give up? Try to Forge the bars instead? They’d been made with ralkalest, the unForgeable element. She’d get nowhere trying that.
“I am sorry about this,” the Fool said.
“You? You’re just the court fool. Why should I care if you . . .” She trailed off. “You!” she said, pointing. “You’re the one who turned me in!”
“I couldn’t let you steal the scepter.”
“What? Suddenly you’re a loyal subject? Nights, Fool! You should have come to me. I’d have offered you gold to keep my secret.”
“I couldn’t let you steal it,” the Fool continued, “because I had to steal it myself.”
“Your duplicate, I might add,” the Fool said, hands clasped behind his back, “was quite useful. Thank you.”
Shai was a Forger. She had spent her life studying the way people thought and the best ways to fool them. She knew to spot another fake when she saw one. Usually.
All this time . . . The pieces twisted, fitting into place with one another. He had duped her. He had duped them all, the Grands, the empire itself.
Shai’s anger melted away like cold spring runoff, and she found herself raising two curled fingers to her forehead: a salute. If he had pulled this off . . . Nights, she was in the presence of a master.
The Fool smiled. “A chance is coming your way, Shai,” he said.
“A sign of respect, from one liar to another. It is not much—I must leave this place, and my time to arrange an opportunity for you was narrow. But you are clever; it might be enough.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Keep your wits sharpened,” the Fool said, turning to go. “Be careful, be keen. It has been an interesting dance, sparring with you.”
“Fool? I have money.” A lie. “I can offer—”
He turned toward her, meeting her eyes. In that moment, the Imperial Fool changed. His face grew somber, became steel, and his eyes . . .
In his eyes lay an eternity, an age.
She knew people. She had studied people. This man cared nothing for bribes. This man was not just a master. He was something far beyond that.
A shiver ran through her. “Nights, what are you?”
“Why must people always ask it that way?” A faint smile rose on his lips. “You will not see me again. Farewell.”
He slipped up the steps on near-silent feet. Shai watched him go, feeling thoroughly trounced. How long had it been since someone had gotten the better of her so soundly?
She sank down, looking at her bent fork, the notes on the bed, the wooden handle of the fork that she’d removed and begun carving—crudely—as a soulstamp. It was far too imprecise to be effective.
A chance. What did he mean?
The door to the dungeons opened above. She half thought it would be the Fool returning. How like him that would be, to claim that she would not see him again, then reappear seconds later laughing.
Heavy boots sounded on the steps leading out of the dungeon, and she squinted at the newcomers. Guards, guiding a man with long features and fingers. A Grand, the race who led the empire, but he was not high ranked. 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.
A chance . . . An opportunity . . .
Shai composed herself. She had been bested, but her Uncle Won had taught her that being bested was a rule of life. No matter how good you were, someone was better. Live according to that knowledge, and you would never grow so confident that you became sloppy.
And she had not been sloppy. She’d almost had the prize. She had run across someone better. That happened.
This time, she would win. Whatever the opportunity, she would seize it and thrive. For now, she played not for riches, but for her life.
The Grand stepped up to the bars. He paused for just a moment, then waved for the guards to unlock the door. “The arbiters wish to interrogate you, Forger.”
Editor’s note: When Brandon first wrote this novella and sent it around for alpha reads, it included the scene above. Brandon replaced it with the current prologue featuring Gaotona due to feedback from Mary Robinette Kowal.
- So this segues into one of the major structural changes that you made. Which is that when I first read this, you started in Shai’s POV . . .
- Yep. In prison. And she meets with the Imperial Fool, who is Hoid, the character who passes between all of my books. It was a great insider, “nudge-nudge wink-wink” scene with a sparring duel between Hoid and Shai. I wrote it that way not necessarily for the “nudge-nudge wink-wink,” but because I felt that for my readers, having him nod to her in respect immediately builds her up as a strong character. So by taking the great master of this sort of thing from my worlds and having her interact with him was going to be a great way to start her off.
- It was cool, it got me into the story, and then once I was finished writing the story, this scene no longer had a place in it. The Fool was a character who’s dynamic and different and Shai has this whole conversation with him, and then he vanishes and never reappears. The story is actually about her relationship with Gaotona. The Fool appearing in the prologue was just the wrong thing.
- It was a darling that needed to be killed.
- Yes. It was a darling that meets the exact definition. Because it’s my favorite character.
- Mary read the story, and she came to me almost sorry and regretful because she knew this was going to be painful. She said, “I really think you need to cut the prologue.” And I said, “But the prologue is—b-b-b-but—!”
- And she said, “Yeah, but you could replace it with this.” She pitched the opening Gaotona scene and said, “Look, your story is poetic. It has symmetry. You should begin and end with Gaotona. Also, his ending kind of feels like it comes out of nowhere because we haven’t had many viewpoints from him, if any. So it lacks power. If we’d started with him, that would foreshadow his ending.” She was right.
- She was right.
In terms of canonicity, you will notice that various details in the above scene contradict with details of Shai’s imprisonment in the final version of the novella. However, Brandon considers a conversation between Shai and the Fool very much like the one presented above to be a part of official continuity.