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Authors: David Hair

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic, #General

Unholy War

Unholy War

The Moonide Quartet Book III

David Hair

First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Quercus

This edition first published in 2014 by
Quercus Editions Ltd
55 Baker Street
7th Floor, South Block
London
W1U 8EW

Copyright © 2014 by David Hair

The moral right of David Hair to be identified as the author and illustrator of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Ebook ISBN 978 1 78087 204 9
Print ISBN 978 1 78087 202 5

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places and events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

You can find this and many other great books at:
www.quercusbooks.co.uk

 

Also by David Hair

 

Mage’s Blood

Scarlet Tides

 
 

This book is dedicated to Paul Linton. Paul has test-driven this entire series to date, risking his sanity to ensure that the book is safe for you, the consumer. He is a truly international man of the world, with a talent for introducing his friends to the very worst alcoholic beverages this planet has to offer (and some of the best, to be fair). Thanks, mate – and yeah, why not: pour me another shot of Orujo.

 

P
ROLOGUE

 
The Vexations of Emperor Constant (Part Three)
 

The Rimoni Empire: Emperors

It was many centuries before Rimoni could dare to call itself an empire, and the transformation from republic to empire was bloody and almost disastrous. The lesson it taught: court power as you would court a lover.

 

T
HE
R
IMONI
E
MPIRE
: A H
ISTORY
, A
RNO
R
UFIUS
, L
ANTRIS 752

Pallas, Rondelmar

Summer 927

1 Year until the Moontide

Gurvon Gyle let his gaze drift around the room while his countryman Belonius Vult restated the plans for the invasion of Kesh and the entrapment and destruction of Echor Borodium, Duke of Argundy, and his army. Two Noromen who’d risen against the emperor only seventeen years ago, sitting in that same emperor’s inner sanctum and presenting him with a plan to cement his rule. Who would have imagined such a gathering?

Emperor Constant had been just a child then, and perhaps a life in the shadow of more powerful figures had undermined him, made him the weak-kneed young man he was now, startled by shadows and afraid even of those closest to him. The weight of the crown furrowed his brow and hunched his shoulders. Every few seconds he glanced at his mother, as if seeking approval.

Yet if what we’ve just outlined works, we’ll have destroyed a man who’d make a far better ruler and widowed a quarter of a million of his people – and all in your name, Constant Sacrecour
.

It was Mater-Imperia Lucia who dominated the room. She had never needed eye-catching beauty; her sheer presence and veiled intensity were sufficient. Her matronly face was a study in concentration as she listened to Vult, but her eyes roved continually, noting reactions, filing away the tiny behaviours of everyone present. Her attention wasn’t on those familiar to her – iron-faced Kaltus Korion, who was to take over the command of the Crusade next year when Echor died; Tomas Betillon, who would troubleshoot the inevitable crises behind the lines; Calan Dubrayle, who would be safe here in Pallas, counting the profits, and Grand Prelate Wurther, who would be wherever the food was. She was studying Vult, and Gyle himself too; occasionally their eyes met, appraising each other.

Mostly though, her eyes were on the newcomer: the alien. The enemy.

Emir Rashid Mubarak of Halli’kut was quite likely the first Keshi ever to enter this room. In contrast to the dour formality of Rondian courtiers, when he’d removed his cloak it had been as if a peacock had unfurled its tail-feathers: his clothes were almost gaudy, with glittering gems woven into the fabric that were nearly as bright as his own mesmerising green eyes. He reminded Gyle of a cobra swaying to a snake-charmer on the streets of Hebusalim.

Rashid had listened patiently, asked good questions, then he had allowed them to question him. He answered with practised ease, replying to some, not all. Most were logistical: could he field an army big enough to destroy Echor’s? How many magi did he have? Was he sure he could overcome Meiros’ faction within the Ordo Costruo?

The emir didn’t give any definitive answers, of course, and Gurvon would have been surprised if he had. They were not allies; just enemies in collusion. Nor did the Rondians tell him all their plan, just the part he needed to know so that he could deploy overwhelming forces against the Duke of Argundy during the crusade. Echor would have inexperienced soldiers and weak-blooded magi, and was travelling into the most inhospitable deserts of the east. None of the Rondians showed concern that Rashid was any threat to the real army – Kaltus Korion’s forces, who would have the best of everything and were nigh-on invincible.

And after that

Gurvon smiled grimly.


then the rest of our plan unfurls
. Dhassa, Kesh and Javon would become states in thrall to Pallas for ever, and provide the staging-ground for the full conquest of Antiopia. Rashid’s destruction of Echor would be forgotten, except in Argundy itself, where its weakening effect would prevent any possibility of revolt for generations to come. Emperor Constant would become ruler of the known world.

Belonius Vult concluded the discussion with his trademark flourish and turned towards the throne, seeking imperial assent. Constant glanced sideways at his mother as usual before inclining his head. Rashid noticed, of course: a little intelligence of his own to take home: that the Emperor of the West’s hands were tied up in apron-strings.

‘Emir Rashid,’ Lucia said, ‘do you have any questions of your own?’

The emir bowed his head slightly. ‘None at all, lady. The magus has been most clear.’ His voice had a music that would have beguiled one of Kore’s nuns.

‘You do not find it strange that we would act against our own?’ Lucia asked lightly.

Rashid smiled. ‘Let me tell you a tale of my own family. My grandfather once invited his brothers and cousins, all those with a claim to the throne of Halli’kut, to a great feast. He lavished them with gifts and sweet things for a week. On the final night, having allayed the fears of even the wariest, he released ten thousand serpents he had collected for the purpose into the sleeping chambers. He wiped out his entire family, except for his immediate kin, and so secured his reign.’

Gurvon saw looks of sceptical disdain creep across Korion and Dubrayle’s faces. Betillon was looking appreciative – his own ruthlessness ran just as deep. For himself? It just seemed wasteful. He could have found more elegant solutions to such problems, he was sure. As for Lucia … it was as if she recognised a kindred spirit.

‘How will your people greet victory over Duke Echor?’ he asked Rashid.

Those emerald eyes met his own. ‘With great rejoicing.’

‘It will be your only victory,’ Korion warned.

Rashid smiled faintly. ‘All know your reputation, General Korion.’

‘Then don’t be deluded by the crust we throw you and think you can repeat the feat without our connivance,’ Korion snapped, his mouth was shaping the insult ‘mudskin’, but he had the sense to leave to it unspoken. Rashid was a magus himself, one of a handful of Keshi-blooded magi who were part of the Ordo Costruo, the heretical magi based in Antiopia. Rashid was a three-quarter-blooded mage, and though all present in this room had the gnosis, Rashid was a renowned practitioner of the art.

‘The war will unfold as Ahm wills,’ Rashid responded mildly. ‘We will destroy your enemy the Duke of Argundy, and then all cooperation is over. What will be, will be.’

‘As it should be,’ Lucia put in. ‘Emir Rashid, we are grateful for your presence here. We will ensure you are kept apprised of Echor’s movements as the campaign unfolds, and will take care of sending him false intelligence to draw him on to Shaliyah. We trust you will take full advantage.’

Rashid rose smoothly to his feet and bowed gracefully. ‘We will have victory, Ahm willing.’

Lucia rose also, and accepted a kiss on the hand from the emir. A flurry of insincere well-wishes from the men across the table propelled the Keshi nobleman from the room. Gurvon followed him, as he had facilitated the emir’s travel and participation.

‘Well, Magister Gyle,’ Rashid said once they were alone in the antechamber, ‘did that go as you wish?’

‘It did, Emir,’ he said, offering his hand.

Rashid studied it, then slowly took it. ‘Your Rondian hand-clasps are an odd gesture,’ he remarked. ‘Impersonal. It says much of your race. Cold lands, cold hearts.’

‘I don’t think our peoples are so different, Emir. Rulers rule, and the common herd bleat. In the end, the cream rises to the surface.’

Rashid’s eyebrows flickered. ‘I disagree. Your people are argumentative and sceptical. They question their betters too much. In that small room I saw mother overrule son, generals squabble with priests, and thieves like you – forgive me, but you are a thief, Gyle – dictate the future to an emperor. In my land, Ahm has anointed the kings and they speak with one voice. You are divided, and therefore flawed.’

‘Our divisions make us strong, Emir.’

‘Your gnosis makes you strong. All else underlines your godless weakness.’ Rashid patted his cheek amiably. ‘One day, Ahm will strike you all down with lightning from the skies and you will plunge into the fires of Shaitan. So it is written.’

Gurvon chuckled. ‘You believe that? I didn’t really see you as a fanatic, Emir.’

‘I am a pragmatic man, Magister Gyle, but I too do Ahm’s work.’ Rashid bowed. ‘We will not meet again as allies, Gurvon Gyle.’

‘A shame.’

Rashid raised an eyebrow. ‘Think you?’ He bowed again, and opened the door to the palace functionary waiting to guide him back to his windship. He would be gone within the hour.

*

Gurvon returned to the meeting room to find it quiet and gloomy, as if the departure of the colourful emir had drained the life from it. He saw Grand Prelate Wurther purse his lips as he returned; the clergyman had argued hard against entrapping Echor’s army in the coming crusade, claiming it was against the dictates of Kore to involve the heathen Keshi in their plans. He looked no happier to have met the enemy in the flesh. ‘Has he gone?’ he rumbled. He belched softly. ‘We would be better to take him to Headsman Square and end him right now. He will cause us grief, I warrant.’

‘The Keshi will rise in their millions when news of Echor’s defeat comes out,’ Dubrayle agreed. ‘It is a risk.’

‘It is no risk,’ Korion snapped. ‘Echor’s provincials are one thing; my legions are quite another. Let the Keshi rise – I will stamp them back down.’

Betillon snickered. ‘We know how to deal with uppity Noories.’

The room fell silent until Constant twitched and said, ‘I didn’t like that darkie. He dressed like a woman. Perhaps he is one?’

Gurvon watched the other men laugh at this tired old joke. He glanced at Lucia.
You see what I have to put up with
, her gaze seemed to say.
You and I, we see them for what they are: children
.

Aloud she said, ‘Time for the next matter: Treasurer Dubrayle, I believe the floor is yours.’

Gurvon glanced at Vult. This was the one part of the plan he hadn’t contributed to. It was something Dubrayle had cooked up with Vult – something to do with the slave trade. Lucia had demanded that the practice stop, not because she had any pity for Eastern slaves, but because she felt that dark skins were becoming too common in Yuros. She wanted a return to using Sydian and Vereloni slaves, who were at least Yuros-born.

The treasurer sat up, shuffled his papers and started, ‘My Lord Emperor, Mater-Imperia, gentlemen, may I introduce my own expert guests to this gathering?’ He looked at Lucia and after she gave her approval, Constant belatedly following suit, he rapped loudly on a side-door, which opened to reveal an old man in stained robes, bent as if he’d spent his best years hunched over illegible scrolls. He hobbled inside, followed by a man in plain tunic and short leggings, with a shaven skull and the Yothic character ‘Delta’ branded upon his forehead. His face was vacant, as if he were drugged or a simpleton. He carried a falcon on his wrist. The bird shrieked once, but was soothed into silence as he patted it – but it wasn’t that which made Gyle stare at ‘Delta’. It was his aura. All the magi in the room could see it: energies roiling and twisting strangely, like nothing they’d ever seen.

‘Exalted Ones,’ the old man said, ‘allow me to introduce myself. I am Ervyn Naxius, at your service.’

Gurvon knew of Naxius: he’d been the head of the Ordo Costruo based in Pontus, tending to Northpoint Tower and the northern reaches of the Bridge. Though people blamed Antonin Meiros for allowing the Crusades to cross the Leviathan Bridge, it was Ervyn Naxius and his followers who’d been bribed to cede Northpoint, in return for support for his own research into fields that Antonin Meiros had forbidden. Few knew the name now; Naxius and his adherents had vanished at the beginning of the First Crusade.

‘Welcome, Magister Naxius,’ Lucia said smoothly. ‘The empire has much to be grateful to you for.’

‘And you have repaid that gratitude many times over,’ Naxius purred. ‘The freedom to work unfettered has been priceless.’ He looked at the bald man and the hawk with the joyous ownership of a child with a new pet. ‘I have something truly wonderful to show you.’

He pulled a large crystal the size of his fist from a pocket. It was dead-looking, and not of any stone Gurvon knew. ‘Do you recognise it?’ he asked, and when everyone shook their heads, explained, ‘This is a “solarus”: a crystal we of the Ordo Costruo developed to give gnos’ tic strength to the Bridge. It takes in the rays of the sun, what we call “solar force”, and converts it to gnostic energy. A solarus can store more energy than any mere periapt.’

The magi around the table frowned. Each wore a periapt gem to enhance their gnosis. ‘Then why do we not all have one?’ Belonius Vult asked. ‘If this is an enhanced periapt, surely it should be made available to all worthies?’

‘Would that we could,’ sighed Naxius. ‘Sadly, the energy these sun-crystals radiate is so intense that it is debilitating. I am certain such eminent magi as yourselves are aware that the solarus crystals on the Bridge are deadly in prolonged doses – even a mage wearing protective wards can endure them for only a few minutes at a time. Once filled with solar force they cannot even be touched. We’ve tried using them as periapts, but unless they are sealed in lead they infect the user immediately with destructive humours that kill in months – and the lead destroys their effectiveness.’

‘Then what are they good for?’ Korion grumbled.

Naxius beamed. ‘Ah, what indeed? You will be amazed, great general:
amazed
! We have found a use for individual gems such as this that no mage could ever have predicted.’

‘So what is it?’ Betillon demanded impatiently.

The Ordo Costruo renegade held up a hand. ‘First, let me introduce my fellow demonstrator.’ He turned to the branded mage. ‘This is “Delta” – not perhaps the name he was born with’ – he indicated the man’s branded forehead – ‘but it is the obvious name for him now.’ He puffed up proudly. ‘He is a Souldrinker.’

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