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The Doors of Midnight by R.R. Virdi

“Read R.R. Virdi!”―Jim Butcher, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Dresden Files

Myths begin, and a storyteller’s tale deepens, in the essential sequel to R.R. Virdi’s breakout Silk Road-inspired epic fantasy debut, The First Binding.

Some stories are hidden for a reason. All tales have a price. And every debt must be paid.

I killed three men as a child and earned the name Bloodletter. Then I set fire to the fabled Ashram. I’ve been a bird and robbed a merchant king of a ransom of gold. And I have crossed desert sands and cutthroat alleys to repay my debt.

I’ve stood before the eyes of god, faced his judgement, and cast aside the thousand arrows that came with it. And I have passed through the Doors of Midnight and lived to tell the tale.

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Ch. 1 Excerpt: The Doors of Midnight by R.R. Virdi

Myths begin, and a storyteller’s tale deepens, in the essential sequel to R.R. Virdi’s breakout Silk Road-inspired epic fantasy debut, The First Binding.

Some stories are hidden for a reason. All tales have a price. And every debt must be paid.

I killed three men as a child and earned the name Bloodletter. Then I set fire to the fabled Ashram. I’ve been a bird and robbed a merchant king of a ransom of gold. And I have crossed desert sands and cutthroat alleys to repay my debt.

I’ve stood before the eyes of god, faced his judgement, and cast aside the thousand arrows that came with it. And I have passed through the Doors of Midnight and lived to tell the tale.

I have traded one hundred and one stories with a creature as old as time, and survived with only my cleverness, a candle, and a broken promise.

And most recently of all, I have killed a prince, though the stories say I have killed more than one.

My name is Ari. These are my legends.

And these are my lies.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Doors of Midnight by R.R. Virdi, on sale 8/13/24

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ONE

Stories in Stillness

I came to Etaynia in search of the most important thing in the world.
A story.
A secret—the sort best held and better kept from the world.
But I met with a prince instead.
The second the stories will say I’ve killed.
And I did not find the story I came looking for.
I wound up in the most dangerous one of all.

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The prison was blanketed with the weight of stone, and its stillness. A silent-heavy assurance of what we would find in this place. It was the unmoving noiselessness of a place so deep down it has forgotten the sounds of the world above—knowing only the echoing quiet of things buried to be lost to memory. This was the soft-sullen silence of the weary who see no point bothering with speech as it has failed them all before.

It was a stillness found in the iron bars that knew nothing but the keeping of things inside. Long-rusted, as if to make their promise clear: The way would not open, no matter the protests of those within—no matter their efforts.

This was the unspoken prayer, muttered in thought only, full-apparent in the fingernail scratches along the rough stone of the cell floor.

And all the soundlessness of a man whose story might be coming to an end. As once before, the stillness sat before me, waiting for me to do what I do and have done best.

Break it.

And so I did.

Because it was mine to break.

“My name is Ari, and I killed a prince of Etaynia.” The words hung quivering in the air as if they themselves did not have the heart to disturb the quiet that had persisted in this place.

The other prisoners traded a look—the only one they had left to themselves. The long-hollow stare of men who have forgotten all the shapes the world has to offer. They knew only the cold and unblinking regard of stone. One of them traced lines through the air with his gaze—first over the bars of my cell, then over my cloak and cowl.

He was a man who had been hobbled by hard life well before his time, and the years in prison had done no favors to his body. Frail, knotted, and bent in a way that came just as much from pain in back as from the broken pieces inside. His cheeks had a pointed gauntness to them that spoke of little to eat and much less to live for. And the brown of his eyes had long lost whatever spark they once held. He raked fingers through his long hair as he spoke.

“Ari.” His mouth moved as if chewing over the name—tasting something foreign. He spoke it again. Then a third time.

And the stillness returned in the space between words.

I said nothing, adding another layer to it as I used what little strength I could muster to pull my cloak around me. A steady band of torchlight filtered through a slit in the wall above, coming from the halls I’d been dragged through. It washed over the incarnadine fabric obscuring most of my body, painting it a brighter red. A color found fresh in blood.

The man who’d spoken now settled his gaze on my garment, his lips pressing tight. The hollow of his throat tensed visibly. “He wears a blood-red cloak.” The words had no weight—whisper soft and short-lived.

Another man found the strength to throw his weight against the bars of his cell, using them more for support than anything else. “The one that killed a Shaen princess?”

The words brought an unseen fire to my heart and banded it with a heat none of the prison’s cold stone could leach out of me.

“No,” said a third man. He sat with his legs folded, hair hanging so low as to hide his face as he slumped. “He’s the one called that storm down off the Rose Sea. A fury that laid low a fleet of ships, they say. Not a one survived.” The man’s stare weighed heavier as he regarded me.

The first of the trio took advantage of the pause to add his own piece to my legends. “Heard said he killed the emperor of Mutri . . . or was it a prince?” The man’s lips pursed and eyes fluttered as if losing himself in thought. “They say he rescued Enshae from some Shaen lords, and for it, he earned their wrath.”

I nodded. “They say that.” I turned my attention to the lance of light coming through the wall. It resembled a rod—like something I could reach out and take hold of. The thought brought a crooked smile to my mouth that faded as a piece of memory came with it.

The second man rubbed his chin. “Been said he had some swords, no? Three.” The man held up just as many fingers. “Magic. The sorts out of stories.”

I said nothing.

“How’s it go?” He knuckled his forehead and his gaze fell far away. “He took a piece of morning light, then turned it into a sword burning bright? Then he blew a breath, light and thin, to shape a sword that held the wind within.

“No, no.” The third man waved a hand and faced the second of the prisoners.

“That’s half wrong and only two. It goes like this: With a word that no one heard, he pinched a piece of Solus’ light, to make a sword that burned true bright. Then
came the breath, whisper thin, to shape the sword with the wind within. Then there is the final sword. The one of brass and blood and jade. The one all cursed and
wrong-made.”

The trio turned on each other then. They bickered over the lay of the lines, though none found the proper wording.

I cleared my throat, then spoke for all to hear.

“With just a word,
one gone unheard,
he bound a blade // of pale morn light
without edge,
that burned full-bright
to cast back shadows,
far from sight.

With a second word then,
came the gossamer breath,
blown whisper thin,
to shape the sword // full-formless,
the wind within

And lastly there is the sword of jade
of brass, and stone, and blood it’s made
twisted, tainted, cursed,
and still waiting for its price // to be paid.”

The third speaker licked his lips, regarding his fellow inmates as if seeking approval to speak to me. “So, you don’t happen to have any of them magic swords with you, then? Something to cut our way out of here, hm?”

“No, I suppose I don’t.” I raised upturned hands to show the utter lack of anything left to me.

No candle. No cane. Just the blood-red cloak, and my name.

“But you are him?” said the third man.

I inclined my head.

“All that. Princesses, magic swords, sinking ships, walking the Shaen lands. Heard some say he’s kin to gods. Others that he’s demon spawn. Heard him called Godsgrief once.”

“I’ve heard that too.” I brushed my cloak with my hands, seeking something to do with myself as I sat without my books and staff. Having traveled so long with those items now left me with an uneasy lightness in their absence.

“Fire and lightning. Doorways in the sky. So many stories.” The third man exhaled and looked to the ground, tracing his finger against the tiles. “So, can you conjure a way out?”

I blinked. “What?”

“Break down these walls. Shatter the stones. Bend these bars.”

Stone and steel were foreign to me, but fire was not. So I chose to show them what I knew.

I cupped my hands together, eyeing the empty space above my palms, envisioning where to set the ball of fire. The ring of fire at the heart of me came to mind and I fell into the folds. Just a small performance then. I could do that much, couldn’t I?

“Start with whent, then—”

The third man burst into laughter and the folds slipped from me before I could even shape them. He slumped against one of the walls, his amusement growing
louder. The others stared at him before getting the joke I didn’t and joining in his merriment.

After a moment to take in the strangeness of those sounds in this place, I added a chuckle of my own. What else was there to do? And, if I could give these men even that little reprieve—at the expense of myself—well, why not?

The third man ground both palms against his eyes. “Solus, I haven’t had a laugh like that in a long time. We lot haven’t heard our own voices in . . .” He trailed off, frowning at the thought.

“Years, Matio. Years,” said the second man. “They took our voices when they took our freedom. Took everything else too.”

And the silence returned, and with it, the weary resignation the men had grown so accustomed to. Hopelessness serves as a better set of shackles than any metal.

But for a moment, I’d roused them out of it. And I would again, making them think it was their idea all along.

Because after losing our voices to whims of others, the most rebellious thing we can do is take them back. And every voice has something worth saying—hearing.

“What else have you heard?” The simple question would draw more out of them now that they’d begun.

The first man didn’t hesitate. “Heard his name, for what it’s worth to you, sengero, wasn’t Ari. Been said it’s Araiyo. Or was it Ariyo?” His face lost whatever clarity it had moments earlier. “Sorry to say, but he weren’t one of you off-foreign folks. Stories say he’s one of ours. I think.”

The second man waggled a finger toward the first. “No, no. His name was Aram, or so I heard.”

Stones filled my gut at mention of that name. They churned and ground against the core of me.

“Or was it Athwun? No, no, it was Ari, much like our friend here. Though I’m thinking you’re more a storyteller whose tales grew a bit too tall for the crowd above, eh?”

I gave him a practiced smile. Thin as a razor and just as cold. The second prisoner went on. “I know it for fact because I was there to see him, once.”

“You what, Satbien?” Matio crawled closer to the bars that divided their cells.

“You what? God’s honest truth, tell me now, when and where were you anywhere near that man? I call you a liar.”

The man named Satbien shrank a little. “Was close enough, wasn’t I? Heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend of his who talked to a sailor who shared that man’s ship. I swear it, I do.” He gestured in front of his body in the same manner I’d seen others do when making silent prayer to Solus.

Matio waved him off and Satbien readopted the hollow sunkenness the man had kept to before. My one chance then—a moment to be even a shadow of the storyteller I thought myself to be, and rouse them.

All I needed was a few simple words. “I believe you. What did you hear? Tell me.”

It was enough.

And the prison soon carried the sounds of stories.

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“Ari stood on the deck of the large Zibrathi ship and knew a storm was a-comin’. But that weren’t the worst of it, as much as a storm’s a bad thing to face at sea. He’d been strung up on account of seducing the captain’s daughter.”

I smiled at the detail and wondered where it could have come from.

Voices echoed along the stone stairs above. Heavy thuds that meant boots clomping closer. Guards. We would have visitors soon enough, and I had an idea who they were keenest on seeing.

“On account of old sailor’s law, the guilty gets one thing to say and the captain has to give ’em an honest hear of it. So, Ari says, ‘If you drown me, you’ll drown yourselves. I can see the way ahead as clear as I can see you now. A storm will come, and a ship will sail before it. A ship of ill omens. Red as the waters of the Rose Sea can be said to run.’”

“God above, what a lie, Satbien. Everyone knows the waters out there are as blue and green as ours. Maybe gray on some cold bad days. No such thing as red waters.” Matio crossed his arms and legs, winding himself so tight I feared his old joints would lock in place like a knot wound too far in on itself.

“Go back to when you forgot you could speak, Matio. Can’t bother with that? Then swallow your tongue. Let me say my piece.” Satbien scooted closer to the front of his cell, now directing his performance at me and the other member of their trio.

“Now, a red ship ain’t much of an omen. Any crew can paint their ship so, right?” The question lingered in the air and I realized he wanted an answer.

I gave him the simple pleasure and leaned forward, hands on knees. “What happened then?”

That did the trick and Satbien sat back, smug satisfaction plain across his face. A snap of his fingers punctuated the next line of the story. “They all took one look at the ship and realized it weren’t painted red at all. It was what was coming off the ship. Smoke. Like there’d been a fire, and all aboard could see some embers still alight. Red, red as blood.”

“When the chimney smoke goes red as blood.” Matio’s words left him in a whisper. “And comes the storm that brings the flood.” Satbien nodded as Matio went on, and the third man watched in silence. “Nuevellos—the Nine.”

Satbien gestured with a finger. “That’s right. Ari and the crew had come across a ship with the Nuevellos on it. Now, the sailors of the crew weren’t smart enough
nor well-learned of the world to know what they looked at. But Ari knew. And seeing as he was the only one who knew what was happening—”

The footsteps loudened. Approaching men—the sort you didn’t want visiting your quiet little cell on account they would likely ruin what little peace you had to yourself.

Satbien cast a look to the prison’s entry, eyes wide and tongue peeking between his lips. He sucked in a breath and quickened the story. “Ari knew a great many things, and he knew that the men and women aboard the ship had no hope to survive the Nuevellos without him. So he took charge, didn’t he? Commanded ’em
with just a word, loud as thunder, and called down the same against the Nuevellos. Solus strike me down if it ain’t true. He called fire and lightning on that ship and—”

Metal groaned, almost more in protest against the story than from its own age and neglected state. The door to the prison opened and the guards of Del Soliel entered.

Satbien gave us one last look—the stare of a desperate man uttering a final secret before the chance is taken from him once again. “And heard it told that no one survived but for him.” He shut his mouth, and the other men followed his lead.

All of them turned away from me.

And the silence returned again, now waiting for someone else to break it. But it wouldn’t be me.

Heavy boots beat against the stone of the prison floor, drawing a splash where water had worn down the ground and formed a puddle. Matio and the others
adopted the looks of dogs long beaten into submissiveness. Their gazes fell low, not even taking in the feet of those walking by.

I never did learn to keep a supple spine. So I straightened and looked up, eye-ing each of the approaching men.

Two guards, dressed unlike those who’d first tried to bar my way into Del Soliel. If they had armor, I wagered it to be linked mail hidden beneath their padded plum-colored jackets. They had matching pants the same shade and were cut from cloth too similar, and I didn’t mean their clothing.

Twins?

The pair had trimmed their hair in identical fashion, short-cropped and tight in the manner of career soldiers. Lean, angular, and cold of face. But what took my attention the most was the long knife each wore at their side.

Odd choice of weapon for a guard. I reassessed the thought as soon as I’d finished it. No, not guards. Something else.

The man between them was the greatest oddity. A figure so thin I wondered if he only ate every third day, and then kept to just one meal. Just enough to stay alive. Were he not dressed as he was, I’d have thought him the lowest of paupers.

A rake of a man in the clothes of the gentry.

He ran a thin finger under the length of his equally narrow mustache. It didn’t suit him, especially under the crook of his long and curved nose. “Storyteller.” The word left him as more accusation than greeting.

I gave him a lopsided smile. “I was, and then I never got to be, mostly on account of being locked in here before I had a chance to perform.”

The slender man glowered, but his face couldn’t lend any real menace to the stare. His brows looked more like scant lines traced in charcoal than real hair grown. Nothing about him spoke of severity. “I think you’ve performed enough, haven’t you.” It wasn’t a question.

I kept silent, knowing it to be bait, and that nothing good would come of replying.

The man was set in his opinion before he’d stepped in to see me. And I knew on what his mind dwelt. After all, there could be only one thought. But before he could speak, a smattering of whispers broke out in the cells behind them.

“The storyteller?” Satbien’s gaze rose from where it had been fixed before. He didn’t have eyes for the men in front of me, however. His look was for me alone.

Matio mirrored him, as did the last man. “The Storyteller? The red cloak. Of course. You’re the Storyteller. That’s why you started with all that talk of him.” Matio rubbed the palm of a hand against his forehead, face nearly cracking into the smile of someone just catching a joke’s meaning. “Solus. I swear. You had us going for a moment and I—”

“Quiet.” The starved bird of a man turned on a heel and stared at the prisoners. “If you haven’t forgotten how to still your tongues after all this time, then perhaps it’s best I help you remember.” He whirled and reached for one of the long knives on the belts of the twins. The sound of metal sliding out of a sheath filled the air, and then all eyes went to the length of silver catching what little light the prison held.

“Tongues”—the man waggled the blade—“do not grow back. Or so I’m told.” He took a step toward Matio.

My mind tumbled into the folds. I saw and felt my voice bound to the very air around me—my atham, the space that I occupied greater than my own physical being. First two folds, then four. I saw a fishing-line-fine length of imaginary cord flow from the core of me and pass through my lips. It flowed outward, fraying into countless threads to spread through the room. Eight folds now, more than enough. “Start with Whent, then go to Ern.”

Someone shuffled but I barely had ears for it, shutting the sound from my thoughts.

I stood straight, lunging and clasping my hands to the bars of my cell. “I am!” The two words cracked with the force of thunder in a cave, resonating through
the prison with almost enough force to shake free stone and rattle iron. Almost. But the performance had done the job.

The three men who’d come into the prison yelped and leapt back. The whole of their collective attention now fell on me, leaving none for the poor men who’d only just found their voices after far too long a time without them. Their chests heaved in unison and their eyes went wide as a child’s caught in the act of making mischief.

The echoes of my voice died and a new stillness spread through the place. This one tremulous—shaking, and one we all knew could not last. In fact, it
meant not to. It wanted to be broken. And the man who broke it would control the conversation to come.

So I seized it and spoke the words again. “I am.” This time a whisper, just soft enough they couldn’t be sure they’d heard me clearly. “I am the Storyteller. I’ve made lords and ladies cry with tales of daring heroes and tragic romances. I’ve set taverns and inns shaking with applause so loud heaven itself has heard the noise. I’ve been the guest of kings and princes and emperors alike. And I’ve held them, hearts and mind, all enraptured till the end of my tales. I’ve learned every
story there is to know and told them back to men like you as if it’s your first time hearing them.

“That’s who I am. And that is why I came here.” The last line was only half the truth, but it would have to do for now. For the whole of it would surely see me hanged even faster.

The thin man licked his lips, looking to the men at his side for support. It never came, and the knife shook in his hands.

“If you need someone to brandish that at”—I nodded to the blade in hand—“you can try me. It’s not the first time a group of men have pointed blades my way. And I don’t believe it will be the last.” I found a candle flame’s worth of heat in my heart and drew on it, willing it into my eyes as I glared at the men just beyond my bars.

The man with the dagger took the challenge and stepped close enough that his nose nearly touched the metal separating us. “I can assure you, murderer, it will not be the last. You killed a prince of Etaynia. An efante. My efante.” Each word came as quiet as a breath blown into the wind, yet fell with all the weight of lead hitting stone.

His efante. His prince. Brahm’s blood and ashes, he must have served Prince Arturo. Voted for him in the election, and dreamed of seeing him king. A dream that had now died with the efante’s passing. “I’m sorry.” I knew the words wouldn’t do anything but spur the man into greater fury, but they were the truth, and a piece of him needed to hear it no matter how he’d take it.

He quivered in place. The knuckles of one hand going white as he squeezed the handle of the knife with more strength than a man of his build should have been able to manage. “You’re sorry? You killed a prince of this country in cold blood, over tea, after he welcomed you into his company . . . and you’re sorry?” His arm snapped out, thrusting the knife as far as he could into my cell. The point of the blade stopped just short of the hollow of my throat.

I did not move.

“No. You are not. But I swear it, by Solus, Etaynia, and Prince Arturo’s rest, you will be.” His lips trembled long after he’d finished speaking.

Then he took a slow breath, shutting his eyes until he’d regained his composure.

Most of it.

“I could kill you now. No one would know.” He fixed me with a knowing look

that told me it was more than mere temptation. A piece of him had already committed to the act and all that stood in the way was a set of iron bars.

“I would know.” I kept from adding that the imprisoned men would know as well, lest it bring his ire back upon them. I had nothing to do with them being here, but a storyteller’s job is to offer reprieve and escape to those who need it most. I could offer them a poor form of that in the moment, but I would do that much at least.

The man with the knife clenched and unclenched his free fist as if the muscles in his hand were in the throes of a bad spasm. “You think you’re terribly clever, don’t you?”

I gave him a thin curved smile—sharper than the edge of his knife, but with none of the malice in it. “I know I am. Clever, and terrible, in all the ways that can be. That has been my problem all my life.” I lost focus for a moment and failed to see the men, the bars, and all the stone of the prison.

The man in front of me spoke, but I did not hear him. Nothing could reach me in that moment.

When clarity returned, it came with one last thought—a kindness I felt obliged to offer the well-dressed rake. “A piece of advice, friend. Don’t swear promises on the name of a dead man. They never go well. They’re rarely fulfilled. And they don’t bring the dead back . . . or any satisfaction.”

My words reached the wrong part of the man, for he threw his open hand against the bars, taking one in his grip and wrenching at it. If he had the strength, I’m sure he would have torn the metal free and sunk his knife through my ribs. But the iron held firm and his grip slackened. Some of the color waned from his face and his collar darkened with sweat seeping into the fabric.

“My name is Ernesto Vengenza. Remember it. Keep it in your mind, now and until the end. I want you to know there is a knife to haunt your dreams. That this knife is waiting to find your heart. And I want you to know the name of the man who will put it there.” Ernesto didn’t return the blade to the man he’d taken it from and turned to leave. The pair at his side gave me one last look before following suit.

You’re in line behind a great many others. I hope you’re content to wait your turn.

The door to the prison shut.

The silence returned.

And this time, no one tried to break it.

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Copyright © 2024 from R.R. Virdi

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