Authors: David Weber,Joelle Presby
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Space Opera, #Fantasy, #General
THE ROAD TO HELL - eARC
DAVID WEBER &
Advance Reader Copy
Entry #3 in the popular Hell's Gate series by 28 times
New York Times
best-selling author David Weber and Joelle Presby.
The war between magically-gifted Arcana and psionically talented Sharona continues to rage. The dragon-borne Arcanan assault across five universes has been halted at Fort Salby by a desperate defense, but at atrocious cost. One of those costs was the life of Crown Prince Janaki, heir to the newly created Sharonian Empire, who went knowingly to his death in the tradition expected of the House of Calirath. And another price will be the sacrifice of his younger sister, Grand Imperial Princess Andrin, now heir of Sharona, for the accords creating the Sharonian Empire require the marriage of the heir to the Crown to wed a Uromathian prince.
Andrin bears her family's Talent, the Glimpses, which show flashes of events yet to come. She knows the accords must be secured . . . and like her brother, she will pay any price, make any sacrifice for her duty to her people.
Sharona's soldiers dig in, facing the Arcanans in a tense standoff which cannot last long. Both sides continue rushing reinforcements towards the front, but how do armies fight wars when they can reach one another only through the portals which join the universes? And far, far behind the front, carried by dragons, a young Voice name Shaylar and her husband Jathmar hurtle deeper and deeper into Arcanan captivity, their only protection the fierce personal honor of the Andaran officer whose men massacred all of their companions in the horrendous misunderstanding which began the entire conflict.
Men and women of honor on both sides must grapple with the terrible costs and deadly secrets of the spreading cataclysm, and in the shadows, those who will balk at neither treason nor murder drive the conspiracies which pour fuel into the furnace. The stakes are high and the pieces are in motion, but there are factors known not even to the conspirators and not even a Calirath can Glimpse the final outcome.
In this series
by David Weber & Linda Evans
Hell Hath No Fury
by David Weber & Linda Evans
The Road to Hell
by David Weber & Joelle Presby
Baen Books by David Weber
The Star Kingdom
A Beautiful Friendship
with Jane Lindskold
with Jane Lindskold
On Basilisk Station
The Honor of the Queen
The Short Victorious War
Field of Dishonor
Flag in Exile
Honor Among Enemies
In Enemy Hands
Echoes of Honor
Ashes of Victory
War of Honor
At All Costs
Mission of Honor
Crown of Slaves
(with Eric Flint)
Torch of Freedom
(with Eric Flint)
The Shadow of Saganami
Storm from the Shadows
A Rising Thunder
Shadow of Freedom
Cauldron of Ghosts
(with Eric Flint)
edited by David Weber:
More than Honor
Worlds of Honor
Changer of Worlds
The Service of the Sword
In Fire Forged
A Call to Duty
(with Timothy Zahn)
A Call to Arms
(with Timothy Zahn & Thomas Pope)
House of Steel
Oath of Swords
The War God’s Own
Wind Rider’s Oath
War Maid’s Choice
The Sword of the South
To purchase these and all Baen Book titles in e-book format, please go to www.baen.com.
The Road to Hell
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Worlds of Weber & Joelle Presby
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by Dave Seeley
Map by Randy Asplundh
First printing, March 2016
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data t/k
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed in the United States of America
The very tall, powerfully built man strode down the early morning hallway like an icebreaker through floe ice. Or perhaps, given his expression, like a battleship breaking an enemy line. The brilliant sunlight of Tajvana shone through the broad windows down the eastern side of the hall, gleaming on floors of polished marble and gathering in rich puddles, dense with color, on the runner of priceless carpet stretched down the passage’s center. That same sunlight touched the strands of gold threaded through his dark hair, but it did nothing to lighten the darkness in his gray, shadowed eyes.
He had not slept, though those who didn’t know him well might not have guessed it from his appearance. Those who did know him well had no need to guess; they would have known how any trace of sleep must have eluded him in the hours of the night so recently passed. There was bitterness in those gray eyes, and anger. And there was fear—not for himself, but for someone dearer to him than life itself—and there was despair. The harsh, hard, angry despair of someone unaccustomed to powerlessness. The despair of someone who hated himself for his helplessness.
His name was Zindel chan Calirath, Duke of Ternathia, Grand Duke of Farnalia, Warlord of the West, Protector of the Peace, Wing-Crowned, and, by the gods’ grace, Zindel XXIV, Emperor of Ternathia and Zindel I, Emperor Designate of Sharona. He was the most powerful man in more than forty universes…and a father who could not save his daughter from the destruction of her life.
* * *
One of the Calirath Palace maids looked up, saw the emperor bearing down upon her, and flattened herself against the wall with a squeak of dismay. Under other circumstances, Zindel would have paused, smiled at the young woman, asked her name and attempted to set her at ease. This morning, he simply strode past her with a curt nod. He doubted that engaging her in conversation in his present mood could have contributed much to her peace of mind, anyway.
He reached the door of his daughter’s apartments, and the pair of grim-faced bodyguards flanking it came to the attention. They saluted sharply, and he nodded in acknowledgment once more, eyes hard with approval this time as he noted the Model 7 shotguns, bayonets fixed, which supplemented their usual Halanch and Welnahr revolvers. The slide-action weapons were ugly and heavy, not at all what a smartly-dressed imperial guardsmen would carry, and they offered less range than a rifle, but inside the confines of the Palace’s corridors and passages, they were also far more lethal.
He stepped past them without slowing, but his inexorable progress checked abruptly as he crossed the apartment’s threshold and saw the chair outside the closed bedroom door. It was—like all the chairs in Calirath Palace—beautifully made, comfortably padded and richly upholstered. Yet it was intended for people to
in, not as a bed, and the middle-aged woman curled up in it under the light blanket could not have spent a restful night. He gazed at her for a moment, trying to remember if he’d ever before seen Lady Merissa Vankhal without cosmetics, her hair awry. She looked older and somehow worn, even in her sleep, and Zindel’s hard, set expression softened as he gazed at her. There were those, he knew—including his daughter, at times—who saw only Lady Merissa’s fussiness, her insistence on protocol, her determination that her charge’s public appearance should always be immaculate, and overlooked her deep, personal attachment to the imperial grand princess she served so devotedly. Neither he nor his wife Varena had ever made that mistake, and her presence here was not the surprise to him that it would have been to all those other people. She hadn’t mentioned her intention, yet he realized now that she shouldn’t have needed to. He should have known anyway.
He paused and gently tucked the blanket about her shoulders, then drew a deep breath, squared his broad shoulders, and knocked softly upon his daughter’s door.
* * *
Andrin Calirath, Imperial Crown Princess of Ternathia and Sharona, turned in her chair when the tap sounded.
“Come,” she called, and the door opened.
Her father stood in the doorway for just a moment before he stepped hesitantly into the room. Sunshine warm as melted honey poured across the small marble balcony where Andrin sat, staring across the quiet morning at the ultramarine waters of the Ylani Straits and the mourning banners fluttering from every rooftop and railing of Tajvana. Her face was worn and tired, her unquiet gray eyes swollen from the tears she’d been too proud to let anyone see in yesterday’s tumultuous Conclave meeting. A girl with the vitality of youth, sitting in warm, golden sunlight, shouldn’t have looked like ice on a windowpane, so pale light very nearly shone
her, and yet there was a hard-won serenity in that tired face. One that seemed to shatter his heart within his chest. The heart which had already lost a son and now had failed his daughter, as well.
“Andrin,” he said brokenly, “I’m sorry…”
She shook her head. “It isn’t your fault, Papa. There was no other way to secure the accords. I understand that. I don’t blame you, Papa. I blame the spineless cowards in the Conclave for not standing up to Chava’s demands, but never
That simple absolution cut Zindel to the bone. She wasn’t just his eldest daughter and heir; she was the promise of greatness. And she would never reach it, not under one of Chava Busar’s sons. If nothing else, they would kill her in childbed, getting child after child on her. He wanted to wrap his hands around the throat of every rutting royal bastard in Uromathia and squeeze until all that remained was crushed bone and purpled, lifeless flesh. Wanted—more than he’d ever wanted anything in his life—to denounce the accords which made her marriage to a Uromathian prince the price for putting the crown of a united Sharona upon his own head. But duty—that cruel, uncaring goddess of ice and steel which had demanded so much of his ancestors over the millennia—demanded this of him…and of her.
He had an entire world to protect, and protecting
meant he couldn’t protect
Gods, he couldn’t protect his baby girl.…
“Did you bring the list?” she asked softly.
He held it out. It was short. Brutally so. The Emperor of Uromathia had only five unmarried sons. Among them was the crown prince, who was obviously his father’s first choice. She scanned it briefly, then handed it back.
“It isn’t complete, Papa. Please have it amended.”
There was an odd note in her voice, not at all the one he’d expected. It was harder, with an edge of the same steel she’d shown the entire Conclave when she spat her defiance into Chava’s teeth, and he frowned down at her.
“What do you mean, ’Drin?” he asked, trying to identify that oddness in her voice.
She lifted her eyes to meet his, and they were no longer dead, filled with burnt-out grief and proud despair. They were violently alive, those mirrors of his own eyes, and there was no defeat in them. Not in
eyes. The fierce triumph in his daughter’s gaze sent a shockwave through Zindel chan Calirath, and he seized both of her hands, crouched at her feet.
“What is it, Andrin? What have you thought of?”
“It was so obvious we didn’t see it,” she said. Her smile turned almost cruel, and she gave a strange little laugh that chilled Zindel’s blood. “None of us did…except Darcel Kinlafia. Maybe we’ve just spent too long concentrating on the threat of Chava and his empire for any Ternathian to have thought beyond it, but not Darcel. He and Alazon came to me with the answer in the middle of the night.”
“I’m required to marry a royal prince ‘of Uromathia.’ That’s the specific language of the treaty, Papa…but there are more Uromathians in this world than the people who live inside the borders of the Uromathian
. Chava may’ve forgotten that when he signed the treaty, or maybe it was just his arrogance. After all, when
says Uromathia, it means only
Uromathia, because none of those other states matter at all to him. And I realize his negotiators clearly meant ‘of Uromathia’ to mean the empire. But it doesn’t
that…and there are quite a number of royal unmarried sons in the kingdoms that govern those Uromathian peoples outside Chava’s borders. Unmarried sons like Howan Fai Goutin.”
Zindel gaped. She was right. Howan Fai Goutin was the crown prince of Eniath, and Eniath’s people
Uromathians. Culturally. Religiously. Racially.
“Triad’s mercy,” he whispered as a crushing mountain lifted from his shoulders, from his chest. He was suddenly able to
again. The sunlight shone more brightly and the scent of the sea had a saltier tang in his nostrils.
“I ought to have thought of it myself,” Andrin said quietly. “I should’ve remembered that lovely dance I’d enjoyed with Howan Fai at the pre-coronation ball…and the conversation I was having with him and Darcel and Alazon when that awful Glimpse struck. It was so unfair, coming in the middle of a conversation when—” She paused for a moment, then gave her head a little toss. “In the middle of a conversation with someone as sensible as Darcel,” she went on in what her father suspected wasn’t what she’d been about to say, “and a young man I actually liked, one with enough courage to ask a girl a foot and a half taller than he is to dance with him. I should have
him, but there was too much crashing down on me. Janaki’s death, the accords, Chava…It was all too much for me to think straight, but Darcel remembered for me.”
“Shalana be praised,” he said, brushing her hair back where the breeze had caught a tendril and wafted it across her face. “You found it. You found the answer none of us could see.”
found it. Although,” her lips quirked briefly, “I think he was more than a bit embarrassed to be bringing it up with me.”
“Gods, gods,” Zindel said softly, tears brimming in his eyes. “This must be what Janaki Glimpsed, ’Drin!”
“Janaki?” Andrin’s gray eyes darkened again at her dead brother’s name, and Zindel’s hand moved from her hair to cup her cheek. “
had a Glimpse of Darcel and me?”
“Not a very clear one, love. You know”—Zindel’s voice wavered for a moment—“his Talent was never as strong as yours or mine. But he loved you with all his heart, and he knew Darcel Kinlafia would be important to you before he ever sent him to us.”
She looked deep into his eyes, as if searching for something which had been left unsaid, and he gazed back steadily. She knew, he thought. She knew Janaki wasn’t the only one who’d had a Glimpse of her and Kinlafia, and he wondered suddenly if that was what she’d edited out about her conversation with the Voice. But she only looked at him, then nodded with a maturity that was heartbreaking in someone who was barely seventeen years old. A maturity which realized some questions could not be asked, even of a father.
“I understand, Papa,” she said softly, and he felt a fresh pain, because one day, he knew, she truly
understand, and Glimpses seldom showed happy or joyful visions of the future.
“I know you do, dear heart,” he told her, cradling her face between his hands and smiling sadly. “I know you do. But”—he drew a deep, shuddering breath—“thank all the gods there are that Janaki had that Glimpse. And that Darcel Kinlafia is the man he is.”
“In more ways than one,” Andrin agreed in heartfelt tones. “I don’t think he was deliberately pushing me together with Howan Fai, but he and Alazon were the ones who invited him to join us when I decided I needed a rest. And I think it may have been my telling him how close an ally King Junni’s become that made him think of Howan Fai…and remind
about him last night, Marnilay bless him! I can’t pretend even to myself that I really know Howan Fai, but at least I know I
him, and when I think about him compared to Chava’s sons.…” Her voice wavered with sudden tears. “Oh, gods, Papa, I’ve been so
He caught her close, held her as though she were made of glass. He held her until she stopped trembling. Then held her until
stopped trembling. When he knew he could actually control his own voice, he kissed her brow and sat back on his heels.
“We’ll have an amended list in your hands before sunset, sweetling,” he promised, and her eyes softened at his use of her childhood nickname. Shadows of the fear she’d just admitted lingered in them, yet it was a fear she’d conquered. One which could no longer conquer
, and his heart swelled with pride in her.
“I don’t feel particularly sweet at the moment, Papa,” she told him, and she smiled that smile again. The one any hunting lioness might have envied. “At the moment, I feel positively wicked.”
He let go a genuine laugh. “You’ve earned the right, child. More than earned the right.” He lifted her hands, kissed each one in turn, then said, “Enjoy the sunlight and the breeze, Andrin. I have a few things to see to, this morning.”
He walked briskly back across her bedroom, reaching the doorway in four long strides. He nodded once more as he crossed the sitting room, passed Andrin’s saluting bodyguards, and stepped back into the hallway, but this time it was a very different nod and he had to remind himself to maintain the grimly inexorable stride with which he’d arrived. There was no point pretending Chava wouldn’t have sources within Calirath Palace’s staff, and the last thing he could afford was for one of those sources to see him bounding along with the eager, anticipatory buoyancy which had replaced his morning’s earlier despair.
It took him less than five minutes to reach the chamber where his Privy Council had already gathered, despite the earliness of the hour. There were extra armsmen in the green and gold of the House of Calirath outside the council chamber’s door, as well, and they snapped to attention as he strode past them.
The assembled councilors rose at his entrance. Their faces were uniformly grim, most of them pale and worried. Partly that was the lingering shock of the news of the crown prince’s death and the knowledge that the mysterious Arcanans—the Arcanans who, it seemed, truly did use what could only be described as
—had conquered no less than four entire universes in barely two weeks. But it was also deeply personal, he realized. The grimness of men and women who understood what marriage to one of Chava Busar’s sons would do to Andrin yet saw no more way to avoid that fate than he had.