Hearts of Ice
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Summer is gone, and the world is turning to ice. The Rondian Empress Lyra has lost her husband, her army is defeated and the deadly Masked Cabal have seized the Holy City. Her allies have abandoned her and her empire is spiralling into chaos - and her only weapon is a forbidden magic she dare not use. She can't survive alone - but who can she still trust? 'Vibrant, memorable characters' - SciFi Now The Eastern conqueror Sultan Rashid is victorious on the battlefield, but now he faces an enemy more deadly than Rondian knights: the winter. Unless he captures a major city to shelter his huge armies, his plans to overthrow the West face ruin in the snow. But standing between his men and safety is the remnants of a defeated army led by a general who knows all about fighting for survival. ' An epic journey of ordinary people destined to change the course of history . . . alluring . . . gripping' - BoHoMind.com There are no easy options left. Lyra and her fellow dwymancers must master their deadly magic, whatever the cost. Even those who believe themselves to be fighting for good must grasp the reins of power with cold-hearted determination, and use even the most terrible weapon, if they are to stop the world from falling apart . . . for ever.
Release date: March 21, 2019
Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books
Print pages: 659
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Hearts of Ice
In Junesse 930, a newly formed mage order, the Merozain Bhaicara, save the Leviathan Bridge and use its gnostic energy to destroy the Imperial Windfleet circling above; the resultant deaths of Emperor Constant and Mater-Imperia Lucia create a power vacuum at the heart of the Rondian Empire.
The Church of Kore reacts quickest: Grand Prelate Dominius Wurther, entrusted with Prince Cordan and Princess Coramore, Constant’s children, prepares to form a Regency Council to secure the continuation of the Sacrecour dynasty. But Wurther’s confidante, Ostevan Jandreux, tips off his kinswoman, Duchess Radine of Coraine, who sends mage-knights to capture Cordan and Coramore from under the Church’s nose – and discover the hitherto unknown Lyra Vereinen, daughter of the late Princess Natia – and a prime claimant for the throne.
With their rivals paralysed by the disasters of the Third Crusade, the Corani persuade Grand Prelate Wurther and Imperial Treasurer Calan Dubrayle to abandon the Sacrecours and join the Corani camp; Wurther’s support is conditional on the banishment of Ostevan, in revenge for his betrayal.
Radine and Lyra are greeted by great rejoicing when the duchess marches her soldiers into Pallas, aided by the fairy-tale circumstances of Lyra’s rescue and general fear of civil war.
But Lyra, a complex young woman with her own secrets, is no one’s compliant tool. Her father is unknown and despite being a pure-blood mage, she’s never been trained in the gnosis – when she does awaken to magic, it’s not the gnosis, but the heretical arts of dwymancy. Even worse in Radine’s eyes, she’s fallen in love with her rescuer, Corani knight Ril Endarion, deemed by all a highly unsuitable partner, especially when Radine is insisting she take the formidable Corani hero Solon Takwyth as her husband.
On the eve of the coronation, Lyra blindsides the duchess by marrying Ril in a secret ceremony conducted by Ostevan, who, facing exile, is acting out of spite. After Lyra has been crowned the next day, she declares her marriage before the world, leaving Radine, Takwyth and spymaster Dirklan Setallius no choice but to accept her actions. After striking the new crown-prince, Takwyth goes into voluntary exile.
Despite this shaky start, the Corani are able to face down their rivals and the succession crisis appears to have been resolved. In relief, Pallas and the Rondian Empire settle into dealing with a new world and a new ruler.
Five uneasy years pass, during which the Rondian Empire struggles on. The people are increasingly unhappy as the Treasury has been forced to impose heavy taxes to rebuild Imperial finances. The vassal-states of Argundy, Estellayne and Noros are clamouring for greater autonomy while warlords and mercenaries are warring in the far south. Duchess Radine dies, still embittered by Lyra’s betrayal. Lyra has two miscarriages and remains without an heir of her blood, but she and Ril continue to reign in Pallas, with Cordan and Coramore held as hostages.
In Ahmedhassa, Sultan Salim Kabarakhi I of Kesh is trying to rebuild his realm, with the aid of the mighty Eastern mage, Rashid Mubarak. His efforts are undermined by corruption and by the Shihadi faction, who are demanding revenge against the West.
In 935, as new crises develop in the East and West, a secret cabal rises. The members wear Lantric theatre masks, concealing their identities, even from each other, but they answer to Ervyn Naxius, a genius unconstrained by anything resembling morality. He offers the cabal members powers to match the Merozain Bhaicara – use of all sixteen facets of Ascendant-strength gnosis – through a link to an ancient super-daemon called Abraxas; they also have the ability to enslave others using the daemon’s ichor. Once Naxius has proved that the daemon does not control the link, the ‘Masks’ join him, seeking to become rulers of a new era.
In the West, the cabal plots to supplant Empress Lyra with the pliant Prince Cordan. Ostevan, now a Mask, engineers a return to court as Lyra’s confessor and begins infecting people with the daemon’s ichor, masking the effects behind the seasonal outbreak of the riverreek illness, in readiness for kidnapping the royal children.
The climax of a jousting tournament intended to bolster Ril and Lyra’s faltering rule is the joust between Ril and an ‘Incognito Knight’. When the unknown victor is revealed to be Solon Takwyth, returned from exile, he begs a boon from Lyra before the adoring crowd: that he be forgiven and permitted to return to Corani service. His manipulative request forces Lyra to accept – just before she learns that Cordan and Coramore have been abducted. Setallius, her spymaster, must find the Sacrecour children before they can be used against her.
Meanwhile in the East, the Masks strike a savage blow: at the height of the Convocation, a religious and political event that shapes future policy, Sultan Salim is assassinated by the Masked Cabal. The only survivor of his household is Latif, his impersonator, who goes into hiding. Rashid Mubarak seizes control, and shifts policy towards war. His sons, brutal Attam and cunning Xoredh, advance his plans for a Shihad; the holy war against the vast and hostile nation of Lakh is intended to unify his new sultanate.
Rashid’s nephew, Prince Waqar, is investigating Salim’s murder and the related poisoning of his mother Sakita, Rashid’s sister, when he meets Tarita Alhani, a Javon spy. They discover hints that Waqar and his sister Jehana may be able to wield a mysterious power – but before the mystery is solved, Rashid sends Waqar south to Lokistan on a secret mission.
In Dhassa, mage-brothers Kyrik and Valdyr Sarkany are reunited. The princes, heirs of the tiny Yurosi kingdom of Mollachia, have been captives in the dehumanising breeding-camps run by the Eastern magi; Kyrik was released into the care of a Godspeaker, an Eastern priest of Ahm, while Valdyr, who has remained true to Kore, has been a slave-labourer for five years. He has been under a gnosis-suppressing Chain-rune since his capture as a child and has never gained the gnosis. Having secured the brothers’ release, Paruq takes them by windship to Yuros, where he is conducting missionary work among a tribe of Sydian nomads. The brothers learn that the Sydians might be distant racial kin to their own people, but they go on alone to Mollachia, where they are captured by tax-farmers, a by-product of Empress Lyra’s efforts to fund her reign. Their dead father owed a fortune in taxes and two Rondian legions, one led by siblings Robear and Sacrista Delestre, the other by Governor Ansel Inoxion, are now stripping the country of its wealth. The Sarkany brothers are imprisoned and left to die – but members of the Vitezai Sarkanum, legendary freedom fighters, discover and rescue them, and a resistance movement begins. Kyrik returns to the Sydian steppes to recruit aid, knowing the price will be marriage to Hajya, the fiery Sydian witch. Valdyr distinguishes himself against the Rondian occupiers, but is still unable to gain the gnosis, despite having his Chain-rune removed.
In Pallas, Naxius and his Masks are readying their coup. Ordinary citizens, apparently suffering a virulent outbreak of riverreek but in fact possessed minions of Abraxas, are used as shock troops in coordinated assaults on the Imperial Bastion and Celestium, the Church of Kore’s holiest site. The attack is coordinated with a planned unveiling of Prince Cordan as the new emperor and the arrival of a Sacrecour army at the gates.
Meanwhile in the East, the new sultan’s careful long-term planning reaches fulfilment: Rashid has assembled a vast Windfleet of ships and now reveals the Shihad’s true target–the Rondian Empire. The only thing preventing invasion is the Leviathan Bridge itself – if the Ordo Costruo or the Merozain Bhaicara unleash the powers of the Bridge’s towers, as they did against Emperor Constant’s fleet in 930, Rashid’s fleet would be destroyed.
At this stage, a new variable enters play: the heretical form of magic known as dwymancy has long been believed extinct – but now fate or coincidence has placed four dwymancers in the midst of these world-changing events, although two of them don’t yet realise their own power.
In Pallas, the apparently indestructible Masks are on the brink of seizing power in both Bastion and Celestium – until Empress Lyra inadvertently uses dwyma to destroy one of them. In the Celestium, a burst of light from the shrine of Saint Eloy, a dwymancer who supposedly abjured his powers for love of Kore, fells another Mask.
In Mollachia, on a wild night on the sacred Watcher’s Peak, Valdyr Sarkany uses the dwyma to freeze a legion of Rondian solders, killing Robear Delestre, just as they’re about to defeat Kyrik and his Sydian riders. Only Robear’s sister Sacrista, the better soldier of the siblings, survives.
In the East, the dark side of dwyma is revealed when Sakita Mubarak, a member of the Ordo Costruo, is slain, revived by necromancy and enslaved by the Masks, who compel her to use her devastating powers to destroy Midpoint Tower, obliterating herself in the process.
Waqar and Tarita are too late to stop her, but they find mysterious artefacts in the tower, as well as some clues, just as Rashid’s windfleet appears on the southern horizon, heading for Yuros. Waqar at last accepts that his beloved and respected uncle is probably working with the masked assassins – and is therefore behind his mother’s death.
It is Julsep 935, and for the first time in recorded history, the East is invading the West. The Ordo Costruo and Merozain Bhaicara cannot prevent the invasion – all their energies must go into repairing the Bridge before it’s washed away completely. And for the first time in five centuries, dwymancers with unpredictable, devastating powers are walking the lands. What they do may damn East and West to aeons of suffering.
The Events of Autumn (Julsep-Octen) 935 (as related in Prince of the Spear)
The Rondian Empire has barely survived the attempts of the Masked Cabal to unseat Empress Lyra Vereinen and Grand-Prelate Dominius Wurther on Reeker Night; now it reels in shock at the tidings of an Eastern invasion.
The Masked Cabal are still at large: Jest, Tear and Angelstar launch another plot to bring Pallas under their power; while the Eastern conspirators known as Ironhelm, Heartface and Beak prepare for the next phase of their campaign to take control of the Shihad.
Crown Prince Ril Endarion is appointed to command the Imperial Army, a role he is grateful to take, not just to help safeguard the realm, but also to escape the breakdown of his marriage. A fateful kiss on Reeker Night with lifelong friend Basia de Sirou has burgeoned into an adulterous affair. Leaving his tangled personal life behind, he throws himself into the impossible task of knitting five rival groups into one Imperial Army, but as the Rondian soldiers trek south, they are increasingly divided and uncoordinated. Engaging in aerial reconnaissance of the Shihad advance, Ril comes into contact with a new form of enemy: Keshi magi riding rocs: giant eagles constructed by animagi. The roc-riders are led by Prince Waqar Mubarak, who has been given responsibility for protecting the skies above the Eastern advance.
In Pallas the heavily pregnant Lyra researches the dwyma, the heretical magic that saved her on Reeker Night. She’s helped by Dirklan Setallius, Solon Takwyth and Basia de Sirou, but her progress is hampered by her blind spot: her affection for Ostevan Jandreux, her confessor and closest confidante – who is also Jest. Using drugs and religion, he manipulates her, seeking to escape his daemonic thraldom to Ervyn Naxius and the daemon Abraxas.
The beautiful Medelie Aventour lures Solon Takwyth into the latest conspiracy to unseat Lyra – then Medelie reveals herself to be Radine Jandreux, the late Duchess of Coraine, who is not as dead as everyone believed. Her youth has been restored and now Radine/Medelie is bent upon Lyra’s fall; she and her conspirators believe they can succeed where Reeker Night failed.
Popular movements are also growing outside the court, including support for an ancient democratic system called suffragium, propounded by a radical named Ari Frankel. The Rondian Empire has already lost control of southern Yuros to the mysterious ‘Lord of Rym’.
Ostevan almost succeeds in his attempt to seduce Lyra, playing on her insecurities over Ril’s relationship with Basia, but his perfidy is exposed and in her fury Lyra unleashes the dwyma. Ostevan barely escapes; Naxius considers killing him, but instead accelerates his plans to seize both Bastion and Celestium. Initiating mystical contact with Lyra, he lures her to the Shrine of Saint Eloy, where he intends to capture her.
In Mollachia, Valdyr Sarkany is coming to terms with having slain so many using the dwyma, a power he barely understands. He is disturbed by the attitude of the Mollach people to their new Sydian allies, but it’s more important he returns to Watcher’s Peak to learn about his new power. Along the way he rescues an injured wolf, naming it Gricoama. Unknown to Valdyr, the man who tortured him in the breeding-houses, Asiv Fariddan (‘Beak’ of the Masked Cabal), has arrived to seek the source of dwyma-energy his master Naxius sensed. Asiv infects Governor Inoxion with daemon ichor as part of his plan to trap Valdyr, but the governor is slain by Sacrista when he attacks and infects her. Weakened, Sacrista is captured and interred alive by Dragan, head of the Vitezai Sarkanum, in a barbaric Mollach ritual called the Witch’s Grave.
Meanwhile, Valdyr’s brother Kyrik has brought the rest of Clan Vlpa into Mollachia, together with a group of Schlessen and Mantauri, minotaur-like constructs, led by Fridryk ‘Kip’ Kippenegger, a former Legion mage. Kyrik learns he is sterile; his inability to provide heirs with Hajya to the Mollach throne would destroy the vital alliance, so he keeps this secret.
Waqar is desperate to find his sister Jehana, but the invasion means he is forced to leave the hunt to Tarita Alhani, the Merozain mage from Javon, not knowing that Alyssa Dulayne, his uncle’s former mistress – now Heartface of the Masked Cabal – is also seeking her. The trail leads to Sunset Tower, one of the five towers of the damaged Leviathan Bridge. Alyssa lays siege, but Tarita manages to get inside and finds Jehana.
Meanwhile the Shihad is advancing across southeastern Yuros, capturing cities in the sparsely populated region of Verelon. Sydian tribes are flocking to Rashid’s banner. Latif, the assassinated sultan’s impersonator, is part of an elephant unit enduring the horrors of war.
As autumn advances towards winter, matters come to a head. Ari Frankel finds men willing to advance the cause of suffragium, and in doing so, break up the empire, but before this relationship bears fruit, he is captured by the Inquisition, to be shipped north to stand trial.
At Sunset Tower, a traitor lets Alyssa in – but Jehana escapes, thanks to the heroism of Tarita and an intelligent construct known as Ogre, who was created by Naxius.
In Mollachia, Asiv Fariddan has infected Dragan with daemon ichor and turned the whole of the Vitezai Sarkanum to his will. He fatally wounds the guardian spirit of Watcher’s Peak, the White Stag, trapping Valdyr on the mountain, and unleashes a horde of Reekers at Kyrik’s coronation. Hajya is captured or killed, and Kyrik barely escapes.
In Pallas, the Masked Cabal strike again. Tear (Medelie) moves against the Bastion, and while Lyra is visiting the shrine of Saint Eloy in the Holy City, Jest (Ostevan) and Angelstar (the Inquisitor commander Dravis Ryburn) seize the Celestium. But Solon Takwyth has in fact turned spy, not traitor, and with Dirklan Setallius, kills Medelie/Tear. However, one conspirator escapes with Cordan and Coramore, which removes the only safeguard preventing Garod Sacrecour from rebelling. In the Celestium, Lyra and Wurther escape Naxius and the Masks, but the Winter Tree is destroyed, endangering the entire dwyma. Lyra goes into a labour, but despite Naxius’ attack, safely delivers Rildan: her son and heir.
At Collistein Junction, the Imperial Army finally meets the Shihad in open battle, but they are badly outnumbered and disjointed. Waqar’s windfleet and roc-riders win the air battle – and Ril is slain by Waqar in a desperate mid-air duel. It is thanks only to Brician general Seth Korion, a hero of the Third Crusade, that a rout is prevented.
It is now Noveleve 935 and winter is almost upon Yuros. Valdyr is on Watcher’s Peak, fearing for Kyrik’s life and dreading the return of Asiv. Jehana, Tarita and Ogre are in the ocean, seeking to escape Alyssa Dulayne. Rashid celebrates victory, but if his army doesn’t find shelter before midwinter, a million men may freeze to death. And the widowed Lyra’s only consolation in defeat is that her enemies are finally unmasked and staring at her from across the Bruin River in an Imperial city that is now the front line of a new civil war.
Before two things collide, there is an orderly symmetry: the trajectory of the projectile and the lines of the wall. The ranks of battle are laid out just as the generals command. The two jousters arc towards each other, lances set. All plans remain intact, all variables are calculable – but after impact comes chaos. No one can know exactly how the collision will play out, which units will hold and which fold, whether the lances will break and where the splinters will fly, but it’s those details that decide everything.
JERVYS TAREWYND, MAGE-SCHOLAR, KLIEF 832
The Rymfort, Pallas, Rondelmar, Yuros Noveleve 935
Dravis Ryburn, Knight-Princeps of the Holy Inquisition, strode along a vaulted corridor in the west wing of the Celestium, the massive domed edifice in Pallas-Sud, when he heard a shout, the crash of something falling and the clang of steel on steel. He paused, raising a hand.
The cohort of Inquisitorial Guard behind him halted and his bodyguard, sleek and elegant Lef Yarle, looked at him enquiringly.
‘It’ll just be a skirmish,’ Yarle said. ‘The Pontifex’s men are going room by room.’
‘I would investigate.’
Yarle obeyed instantly, gesturing to the lead men.
They had the door open in seconds and with swords at the ready, stepped through – and then, hesitating, the serjant said, ‘My Lord, I don’t think–’
‘We know that,’ Yarle drawled. He entered, then sent a mental report into Ryburn’s mind:
Ryburn told the rest of the cohort to stay outside and walked into what turned out to be a records room. The shelving had been toppled, chairs and desks overturned and documents were strewn everywhere. Two headless corpses lay amidst the chaos, black blood flowing from neck-stumps and soaking into the paper; their heads were lying several feet away, the expressions of rage slackening. Both had been priests.
Three more black-eyed clergy were on the far side of the room, spinning to view the intruders. They snarled, dark drool running down their chins, but as they saw Ryburn, that sound became a subservient whimper.
Beyond them, barricaded into the corner by a toppled desk, a soldier of the Kirkegarde was at bay, black ichor on his blade and his expression horrified, counter-balanced by a fierce will to live. He’d done well to take down two of his assailants already: clearly a young man of promise.
‘My Lord!’ he cried, as he recognised Ryburn, ‘Please, help us–’
Us? Then Ryburn caught sight of a flash of a nun’s cowl and a glimpse of pale skin, cowering behind the makeshift barrier. Two frightened, pleading eyes peered out at him.
Ryburn signalled and Lef Yarle blurred into action: three sweeping blows, delivered with a dancer’s grace and a blacksmith’s power, and the remaining priests collapsed, their heads thudding wetly as they rolled against the desk.
The young nun gave a sobbing cry while her protector stared in awe. He lowered his blade and made the Sign of Corineus, fist to heart. ‘My Lord,’ he gasped, ‘my life is yours.’
So it is.
‘What’s your name, soldier?’ Ryburn asked, while Yarle pulled the barricade apart with kinesis so the pair could emerge.
‘Tees Velan,’ the young man replied, ‘Fourth Century, Second Maniple of Kirkegarde IX.’ He fell to one knee, pulling the woman down as well. ‘My Lord,’ he asked, bewilderment overcoming his fear, ‘what’s happening?’
‘A cabal, led by Ostevan Jandreux, the queen’s former confessor, has seized power here in the Celestium. Grand Prelate Wurther has fled and Ostevan has taken the title “Pontifex”, which signifies his desire to rule both sacred and secular empires. He’s been aided by these Reekers.’
‘They’re everywhere,’ Velan panted. ‘I managed to rescue Sister Briolla, but we were discovered – everyone here has the Reeker disease, my Lord – they’re like animals.’
‘They’re worse than animals,’ Ryburn replied, gesturing for the young man and the terrified young nun to rise. ‘Animals don’t kill for pleasure, or likewise spread disease. These are highly infectious rabid beasts, Velan, possessed by a daemon. Any they bite will be similarly afflicted.’
The young nun – she was pretty enough, if one’s tastes ran that way – gave a shocked wail, and Ryburn’s eyes went to her rent sleeve. Blood was soaking into the pale blue cloth.
‘Please, you’re a mage,’ she gabbled, ‘please, heal me, Milord–’
Ryburn glanced at Yarle, who always knew precisely what he wanted, then locked his gaze on Velan, engaging mesmeric-gnosis to ensure the soldier couldn’t look away. As he did, he allowed the black ichor in his veins to flow into his eyes.
‘No . . .’ the Kirkegarde man whimpered in despair.
‘But yes,’ Knight-Princeps Ryburn drawled maliciously.
Yarle gripped the nun’s coif and tore it open, baring her throat as his teeth lengthened. He bit the girl, pumping ichor into her, while Ryburn kept Velan’s eyes locked on his own.
‘This thing you fear? It is not to be feared,’ Ryburn told the young man. ‘It is simply a communion of minds, united in purpose. It is a Church, a haven, a cause.’ He licked his lips. ‘Give me your wrist, Velan.’
‘No, I cannot,’ Velan choked out. He strained to move, to fight or flee, but mesmerism and kinesis held him bound. Beside him, Sister Briolla, clutching her torn throat, collapsed to the paper-strewn floor, choking on blood that was already turning black. Ryburn could hear Abraxas crowing as the daemon latched onto her mind, rending and conquering.
Yarle wiped her ruby blood from his mouth, purring.
‘Did you know, I began my career as a torturer?’ Ryburn remarked. ‘Newly made a mage, commanded to inflict pain, to disfigure and disable, sometimes to extract a confession, other times simply to punish. Many found it hard, but I excelled, for I reconciled my conscience with my belief that nothing we do in this life matters – one is either destined for Paradise with Kore . . . or eternity in the pits of the Lord of Hel. I merely hastened the work of Destiny.’
‘M . . . Mercy,’ Velan stammered, staring at Briolla, convulsing on the floor.
‘But of course,’ Ryburn went on, ignoring the plea, ‘eventually I concluded that this Church is a huge lie. There is no Kore. Corineus wasn’t His son, just a dangerous lunatic. The Church is built on the sand of lies and all that awaits us when we die is eternity with the daemons.’
‘No,’ Velan whimpered, tears welling in his eyes. ‘Kore be my hope,’ he began, the opening words of the evening prayer, pausing as Briolla made a strangled sound and started gouging her own face as she struggled with some unseen terror.
‘So the only hope one truly has is that when we die, we become a daemon ourselves,’ Ryburn went on. ‘That is the gift my Master, the man who opened my eyes, gave me.’
Master Naxius, in whose care my soul resides . . .
‘But enough of that,’ he concluded. ‘Time is passing.’ He gestured to Yarle, who gripped Velan and with an almost tender sigh, in stark contrast to the brutal way he’d taken the nun, bit the soldier, looking at Ryburn with the hint of a tease as he stroked the young man’s cheek.
Women were soft, flabby dairy-cows, good for nothing but drudgery, but a man could be whatever you wished, hard or soft, giver or taker. It was a total mystery to Ryburn why most men failed to realise this. Something about the breeding instinct, he assumed – but who truly wanted a child anyway?
As Velan fell to floor beside the nun, his eyes beginning to bulge, Ryburn pulled Yarle to him, black hair against blond, coarse ruggedness against almost preternatural pallor and beauty, and kissed him hungrily.
‘There’s something about the biting that always makes me hard,’ Yarle breathed.
Ryburn squeezed his forearm. ‘Unfortunately, the Master awaits us now. But we have tonight – and the rest of eternity.’
They left the nun and the soldier to thrash their way through death into rebirth as Reeker slaves. By now there were few free humans left in either the Rymfort or the Celestium, but they had kept the attack carefully contained and the outside world remained oblivious, unaware that the Holy City had fallen.
But the bitch empress escaped, and so did Wurther . . .
‘Come,’ he said. ‘Our new Pontifex awaits.’
They found Ostevan Jandreux in another overly ornate room in the next wing, his effete features aglow with satisfaction, his shoulder-length brown hair and goatee newly combed and oiled, a stark contrast to the bent, dithering man beside him. The Knight-Princeps wasn’t fooled: Mazarin Beleskey, with his shock of pale hair all over the place might look foolish, but he was a genius, not just in the arts of arcane gnosis, but also in the physiology of murder.
I’d not trust him at my back, though: he might be Ostevan’s bloodman now, but he’s just betrayed his former master, and he was Wurther’s for years.
Ryburn and Yarle left their cohort outside with the Pontifex’s own Reeker-bound cohort and silently took their places at the round table. Ostevan, ignoring the elevated throne, took the seat to its right as the air above the throne started shimmering. A dark-robed figure appeared: an aetheric projection composed of light and the gnosis. ‘Good afternoon, Brethren,’ said Ervyn Naxius, his voice unusually strained as he flicked back his cowl to reveal a pale, wizened face with heavy circles beneath the eyes.
Ryburn was interested to see Naxius appearing in his true form, rather than the more youthful visage he often wore: altering one’s appearance, even in an aetheric projection, was taxing, and the Master had disappeared during the attack on the Celestium.
Perhaps he’s been wounded?
‘Greetings, Master,’ the four men started, but Naxius cut them off with an irritable gesture.
‘Report,’ he rasped, his breath laboured.
Ostevan got in first. ‘The Celestium is ours – we’ve infected most of the surviving clergy – we’ve made them “Shepherds” so they’ll have greater control of their bloodlust. The empress and her inner circle know what’s happened, but most of Pallas remains unaware.’
‘How has the empress reacted?’ Naxius asked.
‘She paraded Wurther through the Place d’Accord and he told the masses that the Celestium is in the grip of a Reeker infection and that I have usurped him. They’ve closed the river ferries and seek to isolate us, but with the army down south, her resources are limited.’
‘And her state of mind?’
‘In public, she is stoic and stalwart. By displaying her son, she’s earned the commoners’ sympathy – but she’s just given birth, she’s in widow’s black, her husband just killed, and she is clearly vulnerable. The empire will begin to fragment.’
Naxius frowned. ‘That would be unfortunate. I wish to seize one empire, not a dozen kingdoms. Pull the dukes into your sway.’ He turned to Ryburn. ‘Knight-Princeps, you command the Kirkegarde and the Inquisition: how many men have you?’
‘I command ten thousand men in two legions; and twelve Inquisitorial Fists, being one hundred and forty-four mage-knights, but most are in the south, so the empress has more men than us. Sister Tear was supposed to deliver us the Bastion.’ And you were supposed to capture the empress, he didn’t add.
‘Sister Tear failed us,’ Naxius acknowledged. ‘But the royal children’s capture frees Garod Sacrecour to act. He’ll march to your aid long before the empress can rally support.’
‘What news from the south?’ Ryburn asked.
Naxius gave a tight smile. ‘Have you heard the rumours of defeat? They’re true: the same day you captured the Celestium, the Imperial Army was defeated by the Shihad at Collistein Junction.’
The Master looked pleased, but Ryburn was troubled. After all, the Rondian Empire was the bulwark of the Church of Kore: it was supposed to be invincible. Naxius had Masks among the Shihad; Ryburn had believed the Eastern invasion was just a distraction, a means of dividing the empress’ resources to enable their coup. But this news raised an uncomfortable question.
Who does Naxius wish to be victorious? Surely not these Eastern scum?
‘The Rondian armies are falling back to Jastenberg,’ Naxius went on. ‘Prince-Consort Ril Endarion is dead and the survivors are splintering. Duke Gar
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