The manuscript is back from the proofreader and I've just this morning got a pre-visualisation of the cover image which I'm very pleased with. The cover is a stylistic departure from the Art of War Trilogy covers; this one is more of a graphic novel style in the vein of the covers for the Seven to Eternity series.
I'm anticipating everything being ready in ten days' time or so, so keep an eye out for updates. In the meantime, below is another extract to keep you all tided-over.
They met in the Chapel of Saint Ashera: Keara, Solomon, Keohane, and the two Kudrettis, Haider and Alexa. The air was thick with candle heat and tension.
‘In here,’ Keara said, ushering them in from a secret passageway. Haider and Alexa had come from Castle Loxe incognito, posing as a pair of parents from one of the communes along the coast hoping to secure good Imperial Arts tutelage for their children. With the watch station above currently home to Sector Skarl Okar—albeit briefly—the kaygryn in orbit would be scrutinising the country with more gusto than usual.
‘Gemini,’ Haider said, nodding to him. Haider was the eldest of Marcus Kudret’s brothers, first in line to the throne and the house’s operations man. He was tall and swarthy, lithe like a snake but sinewy and strong. He had the same complexion as Solomon, grim and black-bearded, but was much more intelligent and tipped for great things. In lieu of the silver and blue cloak of a Kudret, he wore a plain moss-green robe and dark fatigues inscrutable from orbit.
‘Haider,’ Gemini replied, taking his hand. ‘Alexa.’
‘Gemini.’ A Kudret by convention, Alexa was shorter and mousier than Haider, with milk-pale skin and a splash of freckles across her pugilist’s nose. She was a renowned bareknuckle fighter, and could often be found fighting incognito in Iepthae’s many taverns. She was Keohane’s opposite number, the Kuddretti Captain of the Guard.
They all sat around the table that Gemini, Solomon, and Keara had sat around the day before. Although everyone maintained a semblance of impassivity, the air was heavy with adrenaline.
‘I understand that my brother Solomon has spoken to you,’ Gemini said, looking at Haider. Haider’s expression—that of concentration—didn’t crack.
‘Yes,’ he said.
‘About the Empire,’ Gemini said.
Gemini smiled a knowing smile. Of course, Haider would not take the prompt. He would wait until Gemini broached the subject. Keohane would have scanned the man a thousand times before he even stepped foot in Ashera, and his int would be disabled. Still: it was difficult to form the words, much less speak them. Damn Solomon for putting him in this bind!
‘What did you make of the conversation?’ Keara interjected.
Haider smiled. ‘It interested me,’ he replied.
It was hot. Below them the shield generators throbbed and rumbled, filling the air with an almost imperceptible bass. The candles fluttered in a stale breeze.
‘Haider,’ Solomon said, doing his very best ‘polite’ voice, which was as strained as a boulder in a butterfly net. ‘You and I spoke of the Empire. We spoke of its shortcomings. We spoke of tribute and our… dissatisfaction.’
Alexa fidgeted next to her brother. ‘What do you want?’ she asked the assembled Prasads. A flicker of irritation passed across Haider’s face. ‘Is this a game? Are you trying to ensnare us? Why did we not meet on mutual gr—’
‘Hold on,’ Gemini interrupted, feeling the situation already slipping from his control. There was a protocol to these things, even if they were breaking Imperial law. Alexa flushed, but recognised the superiority of the head of a Great House—the greatest house of Iepthae. To have continued to protest would have been embarrassingly insolent and amateurish. Gemini relished the few moments’ reprieve.
‘My brother spoke to you, Haider, in confidence, about the laws of tribute. We here have all lost children, blood-children and surrogates and adoptees. Whatever your position, whatever your rank, whatever your house, to deny that the price of the Pax Kaygra is a high one is to deny your own humanity.’ It was coming back to him, the diplomacy and the politics and the scheming. He relished it; it gave him an opportunity, for tonight at least, to forget all his worldly stresses.
Haider eventually conceded with a nod. ‘Yes. I spoke to Solomon. He was very distressed.’ The man couldn’t resist getting in a few barbs for the sake of inter-house rivalry. Solomon bristled, his pride wounded. Haider continued, innocently. ‘He confided in me, under Cavanage.’ Cavanage was a collection of old conventions that each great and lesser house had to respect. Alongside the laws of the Empire, it provided a framework of conduct that emphasised discretion, chivalry, and fairness, and owed its foundation to the Duchies on Earth.
‘And you will respect those laws,’ Gemini said, with a hint of iron.
Haider inclined his head, unfazed. ‘Naturally.’
There was a pause. Gemini cleared his throat. He didn’t actually know what Solomon wanted to achieve from all this.
‘Gemini, I won’t deny that I dislike the tribute. I have lost many of my own children to it, blood-children,’ Haider said eventually. ‘But what are you proposing to actually do about it? Rebel?’
‘No,’ Gemini said quickly. ‘I am not suggesting we rebel.’
‘It need not be war,’ Solomon said. ‘Just a statement. Perhaps we could refuse to provide any more children. Or speak to the Imperial Petitioner. Or ask that the next tribute be delayed.’
Haider shook his head. ‘If we refuse tribute they will hang us all and take the children anyway. Speaking to the Petitioner would be a waste of time.’
‘So we do nothing?’ Solomon growled.
‘What can we do?’ Haider shrugged. ‘The only way you’re going to change anything is to fight.’
There was another silence. The candles guttered. The two legations eyed each other warily from across the table.
‘Let’s speak hypothetically, for a moment,’ Gemini said carefully. He clasped his hands in front of him. ‘What would we need?’
Haider and Alexa exchanged a glance. He could see Keara, too, trying to catch his eye, but he ignored her.
‘For what?’ Haider asked.
Gemini grasped the nettle. ‘For a rebellion. A successful one. What would we need?’
‘Speaking hypothetically. We are still meeting under Cavanage.’
‘We would need soldiers,’ Haider said simply. ‘Soldiers and ships. But we have no ships, and even if we did, we lost the ability to pilot them centuries ago.’
‘There are thousands of humans who can fly starships.’
‘Fine, but they fly in the face of Imperial ordinances. You’re talking about smugglers and criminals.’
‘They may be smugglers and criminals, but they can still fly.’
‘Cargo ships. Blockade runners. Old voidbreakers, yachts, sloops—against Imperial battlecruisers they would be annihilated.’ Now it was Alexa who spoke.
Gemini inclined his head, conceding the point. ‘But we still have soldiers. We produce millions every year. We must outnumber the Imperials a thousand to one. Remember, their armies are spread across two galaxies. We are only interested in one. This one.’ Ours.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Haider said. ‘Without ships it is useless. We could amass the largest army in the galaxy, but they would obliterate us from orbit.’
‘We have our fortresses. They are protected with naval force shields,’ Keohane said.
‘I would not stake my life on outlasting a fleet of Imperial battleships in one force-shielded castle. They would find a way around it,’ Alexa said.
‘They haven’t against the zhahassi,’ Gemini retorted. ‘They have been trying to defeat them for three decades.’
‘And they are,’ Haider said, now exasperated. ‘They are defeating them. Glacially, yes, but they are. Look at the zhahassi now: they are confined to a handful of worlds where before they had an empire of a hundred systems!’
‘But their largest fortresses hold,’ Gemini persisted. ‘Look at Tassis. Look at Gonvarion, and Tranquillity, and others! They have stood for centuries. The kaygryn cannot get in them. They cannot even get near. I have seen them, Haider. I was on Perseus.’
Haider and Alexa lapsed to silence. Gemini had surprised even himself. He didn’t know where these feelings had come from, this latent aggression. Perhaps the whole issue with Petra and Narayana had stirred it up within him. Perhaps he was just sick and tired of seeing human lives spent in their thousands by indifferent alien overlords.
Haider cleared his throat. ‘Gemini, you’re upset—’
‘Don’t do that,’ Gemini interrupted, irritated. The whole room seemed to flinch at the sharpness of his voice. ‘Don’t write this off as the sad passions of an old man. Don’t undermine my words. I have brought you here at great risk, to address an issue that affects us all. Do you think I would have done this if I had not been absolutely confident of our position? I would remind you that House Prasad is the primary house of Iepthae.’
Haider smarted at that. He did not like being slapped down. But he had asked for it. It wasn’t that long ago that Kudrets and Prasads were fighting battles hundreds of men strong on the fields of Iepthae. To look back on them now, they were battles of utter vanity, wasteful and embarrassing, and doubtless fostered by the kaygryn.
‘Forgive my impertinence, sire,’ Haider said, earning a look from Alexa.
Gemini waved him off, the anger already melted out of him like water from a shattered pot. ‘Don’t be so formal, Haider; we can speak freely here.’
Haider sighed. ‘Gemini, I honestly do not know what you are hoping to achieve.’
Gemini shrugged. Honestly, he didn’t know either.
‘An accord,’ he said eventually. ‘Between houses. Between humans. We have four years until the next cycle of tribute. I propose we investigate matters. Speak to pilots and smugglers. Try and get some intelligence on the real progress of the war against the zhahassi. Take the lie of the land. The kaygryn position in this galaxy is more precarious than most people believe. Let’s at least explore the attitudes of our fellow houses. We may be able to organise something.’
‘A… secret alliance.’
‘Against a common enemy,’ Gemini said, and even uttering the word ‘enemy’ sent a thrill through his system. This was true sedition now. The others in the room seemed uncomfortable with the word. No-one particularly liked the kaygryn—that was true of almost every human. But there could be no doubt that Houses Prasad and Kudret had profited from them. They were wealthy and secure, free to live interesting lives of leisure and intrigue.
But the price was too high.
‘Alright,’ Haider said. His initial discomfort had faded. Now he seemed renewed, energised, pleased to give voice to thoughts that he had obviously been thinking for some time. Gone were the petty squabbles of the Great Houses; they would be united again, like the United Nations of old, a dusty and ancient concept of pan-human co-operation so faded it was in danger of passing from legend into myth.
‘Alright,’ Gemini echoed. They all stood and clasped hands. The meeting was over.