First up, I’m a planner: The Sunsurge Quartet is mapped out from start to finish, before I start writing Book One. That includes the Prologues, which I’m using (along with mid-book ‘Interludes’) to introduce the backstory and current status of the villain who’s going to feature most in the next part of the story. They give the reader a chance to see inside the enemy’s heads, and set the agenda for the coming chapters.
In this series, the main villains are part of a cabal trying to tear down human society, and they use theatre masks to disguise their true selves. I was inspired in this by Venetian carnival masques, of which I have a bit of a collection after going mad in a Venice mask shop. I invented my own mask designs and a backstory for them, using the concept of a tradition of morality tales that theatre troupes adlib on stage, every show unique. These can be high art or low farce, always with the same eight characters and central theme – a romance between Ironhelm (the sturdy knight) and Heartface (the innocent maid). Their love is aided or thwarted by the other six characters: the meddling Beak, the prankster Jest, the duplicitous Twoface, the lucky Felix, the nemesis-like Angelstar and the sorrowful Tear. The tale is narrated by a narrator known as the Puppeteer.
This masked theatre reflects the main plot of The Sunsurge Quartet: in which two the young and relatively innocent Lyra and Ril are thrust onto the throne of the Rondian Empire, and must survive the machinations of their own court, and the Masked Cabal’s deadly intrigues, which include unleashing an invasion of their realm from the east.
The excerpt below is from the start of Book Three, Hearts of Ice, and reveals the identity of Angelstar, who takes centre stage from this point. At the end of Book Two (Prince of the Spear) the Masks have struck a critical blow to Lyra’s reign, capturing the holy city, the Celestium, which lies within the walls of her capital city, Pallas. The prologue also involves the Puppeteer, the mastermind behind the cabal – he shows up in all of the prologues and interludes, as his masterplan is gradually revealed.
Readers of this series and it’s predecessor, The Moontide Quartet, know that the politics of this world are deadly. Pitting two inexperienced rulers against a cast of ruthless, self-interested intriguers (not all of them the villains) gave me the chance to explore the morality of power, what principles should guide leaders, and so on… with lots of magic, sword-fights, aerial jousting and warfare, mystery and romance thrown in! I’ve just finished drafting Book Four (Mother of Daemons). Sunsurge has been a long and intense journey for me – I hope it’s an enjoyable one for you.
HEARTS OF ICE
The Masquerade (Angelstar)
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.
Jerv ys Tarewynd, mage-scholar, Klief 832
The Rymfort, Pallas, Rondelmar, Yuros
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: <It’s safe enough.>
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 Garod’s forces never saw combat; they are already retreating north.’
‘So who opposes the Shihad?’ Ryburn asked.
‘Those survivors who have not yet run, and the Argundians, who were late to the battle.’ Naxius sniffed. ‘I care not. What concerns me is that we have uncovered a secret nest of dwymancers. I require the capture, alive and unharmed, of one with the potential awakened but not fulfilled; such a person can be enslaved. Not Lyra Vereinen, though: she’s bonded too deeply with her dwymancy. I need her dead.’
‘As you command,’ Ryburn said emphatically.
‘The dwyma is a heresy,’ Ostevan said. ‘We can use that to ostracise Empress Lyra and break down her authority. She can become the author of her own demise if we’re patient—’
‘No,’ Naxius snapped, ‘I want her dead now ! I want her gone!’ His sudden flash of rage silenced the room.
The Master claimed her as his own, but she eluded him, Ryburn mused. She really is a threat – but Ostevan still lusts for her. His time as her confessor has addled his judgement.
When Ryburn joined the Master’s cabal, three years ago, accepting the mask of Angelstar, the force of divine retribution, he’d quickly realised that his fellow conspirators were shifty and dangerous. Only he was truly loyal.
Tear and Twoface are dead. Here in the West, there’s only Ostevan and me left. But when this is done, only I will remain, seated at the Master’s right hand. And Lef will sit at mine.
‘I’ll destroy her myself,’ Ryburn vowed.
‘Do so, and you will have my favour.’ Naxius’ voice was filled with venom. ‘Hold the Celestium until the Sacrecour army comes, then unleash war across the river. Any further questions?’
There was a brief silence, then Maz Beleskey asked, in his tortuous, exasperatingly roundabout way, ‘Master I would ask, which is to say, I wish . . . no, I would even say, need . . . to know if these ranks – by which I mean this circle . . . will we be replenished? Will we be reinforced, renewed?’
He wants a Mask, Ryburn realised.
‘That process is already underway,’ Naxius replied, which was clearly news to them all.
Ostevan flinched, while Ryburn couldn’t stop himself glancing at his lover. Lef already had a daemon-beast beside his heart, implanted from Ryburn’s own chest.
Lef deserves to be elevated ahead of all others. He’s one of us in all but name.
‘Some may be permitted to join us when their prowess and loyalty are fully proven,’ Naxius said, already fading from sight as he spoke. ‘You have your instructions. Whomsoever brings Lyra Vereinen down will have my favour.’
When he was gone, Ryburn found himself staring at Ostevan and wondering what having the Master’s favour might mean, for himself . . . and for his rivals.