Wednesday, 21 May 2014


Title: Garden Of Stones
Series: Echoes Of Empire Bk#1
Author: Mark T Barnes
Publisher: 47north
Pages:  506 pages
ISBN: 9781611098938
Formats Available: paperback, e-book,audio
Release Date: 21st May 2013

BLURB from Goodreads
An uneasy peace has existed since the fall of the Awakened Empire centuries ago. Now the hybrid Avān share the land with the people they once conquered: the star-born humans; the spectral, undead Nomads; and what remains of the Elemental Masters.

With the Empress-in-Shadows an estranged ghost, it is the ancient dynasties of the Great Houses and the Hundred Families that rule. But now civil war threatens to draw all of Shrīan into a vicious struggle sparked by one man’s lust for power, and his drive to cheat death.

Visions have foretold that Corajidin, dying ruler of House Erebus, will not only survive, but rise to rule his people. The wily nobleman seeks to make his destiny certain—by plundering the ruins of his civilization’s past for the arcane science needed to ensure his survival, and by mercilessly eliminating his rivals. But mercenary warrior-mage Indris, scion of the rival House Näsarat, stands most powerfully in the usurper’s bloody path. For it is Indris who reluctantly accepts the task of finding a missing man, the only one able to steer the teetering nation towards peace.

Title: The Obsidion Heart
Series: Echoes Of Empire Bk#1
Author: Mark T Barnes
Publisher: 47north
Pages:  438
ISBN:  978-1477807606
Formats Available: paperback, ebook, audio
Release Date: 15th October 2013

BLURB from Goodreads
A plot to overthrow the Shrīanese Federation has been quashed, but the bloody rebellion is far from over...and the struggle to survive is just beginning.

Warrior-mage Indris grows weary in his failed attempts to thwart the political machinations of Corajidin, and faces the possibility of imprisonment upon his return to his homeland. Moreover, Indris’s desire for Corajidin’s daughter, Mari, is strong. Can he choose between his duty and his desire…and at what cost?

Left alienated from her House, Mari is torn between the opposing forces of her family and her country—especially now that she’s been offered the position of Knight-Colonel of the Feyassin, the elite royal guards whose legacy reaches back to the days of the Awakened Empire. As the tensions rise, she must decide if her future is with Indris, with her family, or in a direction not yet foreseen.

As he awaits trial for his crimes, Corajidin confronts the good and evil within himself. Does he seek redemption for his cruel deeds, or does he indebt himself further to the enigmatic forces that have promised him success, and granted him a reprieve from death? What is more important: his ambition, regaining the love stolen from him, or his soul?

Goodreads Link

Title: The Pillars Of Sand
Series: Echoes Of Empire Bk#
Author: Mark T Barnes
Publisher: 47north
Pages:  488 pages
ISBN:  978-1477819548
Formats Available: paperback, ebook, audio
Release Date: 20th May 2014

BLURB from Goodreads
The epic conclusion of the Echoes of Empire trilogy.

Prophecy declared that corrupt politician Corajidin would rule the Shrīanese Federation, even become its new Emperor?and sinister magic has helped him defy death in order to do it. But his victory is not assured, thanks to clashing rival factions that hinder any attempts to unify the nation. Though he has taken increasingly brutal measures to eliminate all obstacles in his path, the dark forces supporting him grow dangerously impatient. And the harder they press, the more drastic Corajidin's actions become.

Soon, only his most powerful adversaries will stand in his way: Indris, the peerless swordsman and sorcerer who has long fought to end the Federation's bloody turmoil; and the warrior-poet Mari, Corajidin's own daughter and the woman Indris loves. Fate has torn them apart, forcing them into terrifying personal trials. But if Indris can bring to bear the devastating knowledge of the Pillars of Sand, and Mari can rise up as a rebel leader, Corajidin's enemies will rally?and the decisive battle for the soul and future of the Shrīanese will begin.

Mark Barnes was born in Sydney, Australia, in September of 1966. A strong athlete, he was also drawn to the arts at a young age, penning his first short story as a seven-year-old. He worked in finance and advertising before establishing himself in IT services management. Currently he owns and operates a freelance organizational change consultancy. 

In 2005, when Mark was selected to attend the Clarion South residential short story workshop, he began to write with the intention of making it more than a hobby. Since that time, Mark has published a number of short stories, worked as a freelance script editor, and has driven creative consultancy for a television series. 

Mark is the author of the Echoes of Empire series, published by 47 North. The series includes The Garden of Stones, and The Obsidian Heart. The Pillars of Sand is book three of the series.
You can find out more at:

Twitter @MarkTBarnes


"Barnes drops his readers into a complex world that makes for an immersive experience for lovers of epic fantasy…the female characters on both sides are every bit as strong as the males, a refreshing change in epic fantasy. Highly recommended." 
Library Journal (starred review)


“Were we complete, there would be no need for us to grow through struggle or adversity. There would be no transcendence, illumination, or enlightenment. We need to embrace our many imperfections, make them part of us, to overcome our limitations.”

—From the Esoteric Doctrines, by Sedefke, inventor, explorer, and philosopher (901st Year of the Awakened Empire)

Late autumn. Day 51 of the 496th Year of the Shrīanese Federation

The heat scoured Indris to the point where his muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones thrummed, pushed beyond their endurance. He shrieked, until his voice dwindled to an arid croak. The superheated air parched his gums and made his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth. Fire scorched down his throat and into his lungs; breathing was agony. A serpent of energy coiled around Indris’s spine, flexing, and lashing at the flowering vortices of his energy centers as it strived to inhabit his mind and soul. My Awakening, desperate for release. Worst was the stake of pain through his left eye, a jagged thing that had planted itself and grown molten roots inside his brain burning burning burning—
“Enough!” Femensetri shouted. “Enough, or he’ll bloody well kill us all.”
“Keep going. He can take more,” He-Who-Watches, the Sēq Inquisitor, urged.
“Maybe he can,” Ojin-mar, the Sēq Executioner, replied. “But we can’t. His jhi-reflex has pretty much destroyed this room, too, save the parts where we had multiple wards. Femensetri, you say there were seven others like him?”
“Eight special children were chosen for the Great Labor. But like him?” Femensetri replied. “No, there were none like him.”
Indris relaxed as the Sēq Masters stopped their probing into his memories. It took minutes for the pain to subside, while his hearts felt like hooves beating against his ribs. Minutes where even the caress of the air pricked as needles on his skin. The heat in his skull began to cool. He raised shaking hands to push back his sodden hair, kept them over his eyes until his breathing and pulse returned to normal. Indris saw giant flares and coronas swirling on the canvas of his eyelids. As the sear behind his left eye dwindled to a smolder, and his brain felt less like it was boiling in his skull, Indris cracked open his eyes.
The warded obsidian chair in which he sat seemed none the worse for wear. Indris looked down at his naked body, clothing turned to ash, his skin fading from angry red to its natural light olive, marked with its myriad tattoos and scars. The same thing had happened the past twenty-three times the Sēq Masters had tried to unravel the Anamnesis Maze that coiled around the missing years of Indris’s life. Around him the rest of the laboratory—a vaulted chamber of cold stone deep beneath the rock and snow of the Mar Silin range—looked like it had been hit with several kinds of natural disaster. Stone furniture had been turned to slag. There were concentric ripples in the stone, each spreading from where Indris sat to the blasted walls. Small pieces of silicate in the rock had been transformed into points of glass, glittering like diamond.
Where the Masters stood, the room was barely touched. Indris suppressed a smile at how many of their wards had burned away, leaving the steaming brick-red fractals of their inner circuit intact. The Masters themselves were poised, though Indris noted the sweat that dewed some of their brows. A small number of armored Sēq Knights and Librarians, the latter chronicling the proceedings, stood behind them.
Ojin-mar banished the inner circuit of the ward. The air inside steamed as it rapidly heated, forming tiny clouds that drifted toward the ceiling. The Sēq Inquisitor stepped forward, more relaxed than many of his counterparts. A shock of fair hair and a short beard—little more than stubble—framed his lined, tanned face, and long scars drew down over his right eye and down his cheek to the jaw. He rubbed his jaw with a hand missing both the small and ring fingers. Indris spared a glance for Femensetri, who was scraping a thumbnail along a stain on her Scholar’s Crook. She avoided Indris’s gaze, much as she had done ever since he had been brought to Amarqa-in-the-Snows. He-Who-Watches wiped sweat from his brow with his brightly colored taloub.
“Did you find anything in there?” Indris tapped at his temple and reached for his worn browns and blacks, leaving the Sēq cassock they had brought him where it lay.
“We can’t get through the layers of the maze in your brain without setting off all sorts of mystic traps,” Ojin-mar said. “Who, in the names of all the hallowed dead, did this to you?”
“Somebody who wanted something forgotten.” Indris looked around the laboratory. “You’d better find something out soon, before you run out of places for me to destroy.”
“You’re not funny, boy.” Femensetri’s sharp voice cracked the air. “You don’t think we’ve better things to do than this?”
 “I’m a little funny,” Indris said, more calmly then he felt or she deserved. “I told you I knew nothing about what happened to me, but that didn’t stop you imprisoning me and dragging me down here.”
“You came of your own free will, remember?”
“There’s a kernel of truth in that statement, I suppose. I came in return for the answers you still withhold, and to understand what happened to me when I was on the Spines. And why whatever I found would lead me to Manté of all places. At least one of us was being honest when they said they’d cooperate. Given you’ve not held up your end of our bargain—and not for the first time—I don’t suppose you’d mind giving me Changeling back, so I can leave?” I do have other things I can be doing with my time. Like finding my missing friends. And Mari. Especially Mari.”
 “It’s not as simple as that, Indris.” He-Who-Watches flicked a quick glance at Femensetri, his expression troubled. He gestured for Indris and the others to follow him out of the ruined laboratory. “Much has happened in the time you’ve been with us. Our imperatives, as well as our needs, have changed.”
 “There’s a surprise,” Indris drawled. “The Sēq have changed their minds because it suits them. If you won’t help me—”
“I never said we wouldn’t help.”
“Then give me access to the Black Archives,” Indris said. He felt the tension bordering on pain in his clenched fists. “Or let me out of here so I can do what I should be doing while you nest here behind your walls and wards.”
“Watch your mouth, Indris,” Ojin-mar warned. “We tolerate much from you, but there are limits.”
Limits? Indris suppressed a bark of bitter laughter. None of us know what my limits are, though you’ve pushed and pushed and still not found the answers any of us need.
He shielded his eyes from the sudden glare as they emerged into the open air, high up above the smokey-towered Amarqa-in-the-Snows, first and greatest of the Sēq chapterhouses. Clouds scudded overhead, and farther down the valley Indris spotted the sparking shapes of wind-ships heading toward Amarqa.
“We don’t know enough to let you go.” He-Who-Watches stamped his feet against the cold. “And can’t afford to lose what may be in your head.”
“Does it really matter why Sedefke abandoned you?” Indris folded his hands in the sleeves of his over-robe. His breath streamed between his lips, a milky cloud tinted with all the words he did not say. “And why, in the names of all the sacred dead, do you think he’d tell me what he’d not tell his own disciples?”
“That’s one of the things we want to know, boy,” Femensetri said. “And it matters. Sedefke is gone. The Time Masters are gone. Other than the Seethe, the other Elemental Masters have vanished from the world.”
Ojin-mar’s shoulders slumped. “And we need to know if we’ve been left alone, to face—”
Avendi!” Enough! Femensetri snapped in Maladhoring, unaware that Indris could understand her perfectly well. But how is it I’m able to understand her?
Indris let his eyes close for longer than a blink, centering himself, overcoming frustration. He had hoped the Sēq would have found a way around the Anamnesis Maze, revealing at least some of what had happened to him during the three missing years of his life on the Spines. Perhaps he might learn what he and Anj had said to each other before his memories were locked away: Almost every permutation of the Possibility Tree told him his wife had other intentions for Indris than telling him the truth. But in his time at Amarqa there had been no progress. In fifty-one days, seven laboratories had been ruined. One Master sent to the Differential Baths in an attempt to save her life. Four knights and eleven librarians not so fortunate as to make it even that far. And they were no closer to finding the keys to what was locked in Indris’s mind, or discovering who had locked it away or why.
If Sedefke was alive, and it had been him that had taken the time to tell me anything, why bother locking it away?
“I need to know what’s happened to my friends,” Indris said.
Femensetri squinted in the glare. “You may as well forget Mari—”
“No. I’ll not.” Neither her nor that it was your actions, sahai, which led to the death of my friends, Hayden and Omen. To Mari and Vahineh being taken. If I’d been there, things would’ve ended differently. “I’ve given. Now you must.”
“Sounds like a threat, boy.” His former sahai’s voice was flinty.
Indris shrugged. “It’s what you promised. I’ve cooperated and my jhi-reflex has killed some of you, and wounded a lot more. The results could end up being different next time.”
“Let’s all take a step back, shall we?” Ojin-mar raised a hand to shade his eyes. “Indris, surely you’ve been looking into things yourself? I’d be disappointed if you’d not.”
“If I knew, would I ask?”
“Of course you would.” Ojin-mar smiled. “Otherwise you’d be admitting I was right and you were skilled enough to break through our layers of wards. Which I think you are, and have. We respect you, Indris, and aren’t blinded to certain realities about you. Please do us the same courtesy.”
“So, if you respect me so much, you’ll give me answers? Or the means to get them myself?”
Femensetri looked to the other Masters, then said, “In light of recent events . . . join us in the Founder’s Deep, at the Hour of the Hart tomorrow morning. Bring your questions and we’ll tell what it’s safe for you to know.”
“Safe for whom?” Indris asked.
“Us, obviously.” Ojin-mar’s lips quirked in what was almost a smile as the Masters walked away, over-robes snapping in the chill autumn wind.
It had been a frustrating afternoon in the library, Indris leafing through innumerable books and scrolls without finding any answers. The Mah-Psésahen, the high mental teachings, were alluded to but not discussed at any great length. The Deh-Psésahen, the lesser mental disciplines, were examined at great and tiresome length, with an array of theoretical and practical works, none of which brought Indris any nearer to his goal.
In frustration he had gone to the Manufactory to work on his designs for new armor. The Manufactory had been stifling, and Indris stank from his labors. Once he dropped his new journals with their designs in his room, he was looking forward to a soak in the hot springs and a meal at the Black Quill.
“Hello, husband.”
Indris stopped in his tracks at the door of his chambers, hearts skipping a beat at the sight of Anj, leaning long-limbed against the wall. It reminded him of the day he first realized he loved her. He drew in a quick breath and held it to steady himself, before covering his lips with the tiny mask of a smile.
 “Anj,” Indris said. Where have you been, and who are you now? He did not step closer to his door, for fear the opening of it would provide an invitation he was not yet ready to make.
 “Sure you don’t want some company, stranger?” she said with a wicked smile. She came to stand so close to him, he felt the heat from her skin without touching. Her sapphire eyes were preternaturally bright, her skin glowing against the somber black of her cassock.
“Don’t know. You look like trouble.”
“You could be so lucky.”
And here we are. The same words, a different place. Indris had not forgotten what it was like to run his fingers through the silken strands of her quills. To draw her to him. Linger over the taste of her breath, lips almost touching, the anticipation building until—
He blinked and shook his head. She smiled.
“Somebody’s being a very bad man.” Her voice was low and throaty, almost a purr. “Exactly the way I like him.”
Indris smiled and took a step to the side, causing her to frown.
“What are you planning to do now you’re back?” Anj asked.
“I’m here because it’s less inconvenient than being elsewhere, to learn what I need to learn. But there are things I need to do before I have anything resembling a plan.” He sobered as he thought of his friends. Of Mari, never out of his thoughts, her mortal appeal so unlike Anj’s eldritch fascination. It’s been years. I thought you were dead and said my good-byes. Badly, it now seems . . .
“Need some help?” she asked. “I’ve the time, and people don’t seem to need me around here.”
“Thank you, these are things I need to do by myself. Besides, I thought you’d be of some rather profound interest to the Suret.”
“Ha!” Her whole torso rocked with the word, which made him smile as it always had. “They’re as curious about me as they are about you, but my patrons in the Dhar Gsenni buy me liberties not extended to you.” She frowned. “Fascinating as Order politics is, we need to talk, Indris.”
“I’ve tried to find you to talk but you always seem to be somewhere else.” Suspicion rose in him, and not for the first time. “Tell me where you’ve been.”
“Here and there. Mostly there. Indris, I’ve some of the story of what happened after you left. After I  . . . You looked for me, you beautiful man. For years. And I’ve heard about this Avān woman—”
Anj’s eyes narrowed dangerously in an expression he remembered well. “Yes. Her. But you thought I was dead. Now you know I’m not. So, we need to talk, you and I.”
You may not be dead, but you are not yourself either. He opened himself to the ahmsah and looked at her Disentropic Stain. There it was! The faint blurring, a writhing of shadows around her as if something hid the truth. The same blurring he sensed around the edges of her features, as if this were a painting of the woman he’d known laid over the Anj she had become. He felt the faint oiliness he had come to associate with tainted energy, gone almost as soon as he felt it.
“We do need to talk, Anj. But it’s been a long time since we’ve  . . . I was gone three years on the Spines doing Ancestors know what, then two years as a slave in Sorochel, then two years looking for you. Then, enough time to try to find happiness again. Seven years and more was a long time to be parted, and too many years for nothing to have changed.
Anj nodded slowly, her expression still, as if reading his thoughts. “A lot of years have been stolen from us, Indris, and it was neither of our faults. But I never gave up on you. All I ask is that you give us a chance. We were happy, if I recall. And good for each other, when nobody else was.”
“Anj, please . . .” Indris looked at the toes of his boots, hiding the doubts he knew would be written on his face.
She moved so close they almost touched. He stepped back, and found himself pressed against the wall.
“Laughing winds of revelry, will you relax? We’ve waited seven years. We’ve both been busy this year, with the Masters taking your time, and me away as often as not. What are a few more days for us to come to terms with where we are?”
“Thanks.” I need to know some ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’, before I think too much on ‘where’. You have the answers to so many questions . . . but do I trust you to tell me the truth, whatever you’ve become, despite what you feel the need to hide? He leaned forward to kiss her cheek, but she opened her mouth over his and kissed him hungrily. Her tongue tasted of honey, yet part of him sensed that it, too, was an illusion over a rancid truth.
As he took her hands and put them at her sides—more slowly than he should have; her hands were warm and soft and brought back another flood of memories of the sureness of her touch—Indris stepped back and felt his hearts break all over again. If not for the loss of her, then for the doubts he now harbored.
“There are some things I need to know, Anj. About me. About you. About some people I need to find—”
“Including your Avān?” Anj almost spat the words.
Indris frowned. “Including Mari, yes. Let me do these things; tell me what you know about my time on the Spines. Then you and I will talk about us.”
“Very well,” she pouted, kicking the wall with her heel, arms folded, head turned down even as she smiled dangerously. “Promise?”
“Would I lie to you?”
“Not if you’re smart.”
“Lucky for us both, then.”
Steam coiled about Indris’s face as he relaxed in the hot springs, sunk so low that only his head was out of the water. Several other students and townsfolk had come to enjoy the water, dancing comically as they undressed in the chill, capering through the snow to plunge into the water. Indris greeted those he knew well, and smiled at those he did not, but all of them gave him distance as they huddled at the far end of the spring.
Indris altered his breathing patterns with the ease of practice and opened his mind. The thoughts of those nearby clamored in his head, quickly isolated and silenced. More distant thoughts were a whisper that he could listen to if he focused, but his telepathy was not so well tuned that it was simple. With part of his mind, he identified and isolated sounds: the chatter of the other bathers, the wind through the pine needles, the slosh of snow from overhanging plants, the players in the Black Quill who entertained the packed house. One by one he found the noises, and moved them aside until there was only—
“Indris!” Her response was quick. “Your mental voice is getting stronger every day.”
“Exercising it to speak with you since I got here has helped. Is there any sign of Mari, Shar, and Ekko?”
“Of Mari, no.” Chaiya’s voice was sad. “But her soul is not with the dead, so I assume she is being warded by mystics. Wherever she is, people don’t want her found. But I’ve heard the dreams of Shar and Ekko. They are sailing southward, with Morne Hawkwood and the Immortal Companions.”
“Do you know why?”
“I’m sorry, no.”
“But they’re well?”
“As best I can tell.” Chaiya’s presence in his mind was comforting. “Their dreams are vivid, and filled with memories both joyful and heartbreaking. They think you’re dead, Indris.”
“So I hear,” Indris replied. “It appears the Sēq have been loose with the facts about my untimely demise.”
“Should I enter Shar’s and Ekko’s dreams, and tell them otherwise?”
“No, though thanks for the thought. Best not to distract them, or tempt them to come looking for me. If they’re with Morne, they must be doing something dangerous. And more than likely reckless. I wish I were with them.”
“Searching for Mari, perhaps?”
Indris smiled at the thought. “There’s nothing they can do for me here, Chaiya, and there are things I need to do before I leave. But I do need to leave here, as soon as I have the knowledge I came for. I’ll wait a few more days before I finalize my plans.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Sing to me?”
“Of course, my friend.” Indris counted the heartbeats before the gentle choral voices of the dead swelled in his mind, the intricate instruments of the soul that carried across the endless expanse of the Well of Souls.
“Thank you, Chaiya, Indris said as his eyes closed.
The Founder’s Deep was built into the rock wall at the high end of the vale, overlooking the long stretch of Amarqa-in-the-Snows and the township at the mouth of the valley. A tower of translucent quartz, the Deep was only slightly darker than the snow that huddled in the jagged cracks texturing its surface. Many sets of stairs and the confectionary glitter of serill bridges joined the Deep to the buildings around it, high enough to avoid the cold spray of the Anqorat River, if not the stinging spume that flew from it. Gnarled trees clung to the rock, dappling the quartz with swaying shadows.
Indris folded his hands in the sleeves of his over-robe as he walked across a rimed bridge. The jagged ilhen lamps that lined the bridge were fitful sparks in the light of the bright autumn morning. Along the ridgeline to the north, he saw the tethered shapes of wind-ships floating like kites. The guards who stood by them wore no livery Indris recognized, nor did the ships fly any of the colors of the Great Houses or the Hundred Families, or any of the consortiums of the Teshri. There were few who would willingly come to the Sēq in Amarqa, and Indris wondered who had been desperate enough to make the journey.
At the doors to Founder’s Deep stood two Iku guards, their watchful round eyes set in cheeks like slanted cliff faces, their skin tinted in swirling colored patterns, and their short wings an oily black. A folding fan made of feathers with steel veins was thrust through each Iku’s sash, and both had their clawed hands—wrinkled as chicken feet—wrapped around the hafts of chest-height, studded mauls. Indris had seen just how horrifying the kanbōjé—the “falling sapling,” as the weapons were called—could be in the right hands. Legend had it that the Iku had been waiting for the Sēq when they first arrived in the forest valley, and had shown them the hidden halls and secret ways of the fortress that would later become known as Amarqa-in-the-Snows.
 Both guards nodded respectfully as Indris approached, and he responded with a smile and a nod of his own.
“General Indris,” one of the Iku trilled. She looked around, expression content as she took in the clear skies, mountains, trees, and snow that surrounded them. “Nice day for it.”
“Aren’t they all, Wakanhe?”
“That they are.”
“Do you think it’ll stay that way?”
“For some.”
Indris passed under the jagged quartz lintel. The translucent walls of Founder’s Deep admitted a cool, frosted radiance. Firestones set in black iron braziers cast pools of warmer light around the five tall galleries with their arabesqued black marble columns and floors. The Deep was a wide building, hollow from its high domed roof down to its gravel-strewn floor, and dominated by a tall, eerily lifelike statue of Sedefke, the Founder.
Indris had asked Femensetri once, when he was still a novice, whether the statue was accurate. She had looked up at it with what the younger Indris had thought was love—though the older might say obsession—and said that it was as if the very man himself stood there, made huge in honor of the greatness of his body, mind, and spirit. The statue wore a small smile, as if Sedefke were considering a joke he was waiting for the rest of the room to understand. He wore the buckled cassock of the Sēq, hood thrown back, with a weapon belt buckled about the sash around his waist. A weapon hung there, or at least the hilt and pommel of a weapon, as long as the man’s forearm. The pommel was carved into the likeness of a stylized dragon, or a bird of prey, the hilt covered in what may have been feathers, or scales. Yet there was no blade. Nothing to make the weapon, a weapon.
The wise man never carries a weapon that can be used against him, Sedefke had been famous for saying, after he and the scholars had helped Näsarat fa Dionwē topple the Petal Empire. The wisest has no need to carry a weapon at all. His comment had led to the creation of the first psédari, the mind blades. Legend had it Sedefke had perfected the technique yet further, creating the kajari, or soul blade, a weapon that reflected the ternary nature of existence, and existed only by the manifestation of the owner’s will. A weapon where the hilt and pommel represented the nayu, the shape of the blade was created by the psé, and the blade itself appeared only as manifestation of the kaj—a weapon that was not a weapon without the soul to make it so.
At the bottom of the stair, Aumh, Ojin-mar, and He-Who-Watches stood waiting. As autumn had strode inexorably onward, the butterflies had stopped coming to flutter in Aumh’s fern-like fronds, the lush greenery that sprouted from her head and temples turning copper, now dusted with white as winter drew nearer. The flowers that once grew had fallen, leaving tiny brown seedpods. He-Who-Watches silently observed Indris’s approach, his almost translucent eyes disconcerting against his dark, tattooed skin, his taloub loose about his neck.
Indris was led into a small anteroom with a single door leading out to the Master’s Round. Through the door he could see the assembled Masters in their black cassocks, precious metals and gems for buttons. The Masters made their way to seats on tiers that stepped up and away from the open space at the base of the Round.
“What’s this?” Indris asked Ojin-mar. “I thought I was coming here to have questions answered?”
“In a way,” Aumh said with equanimity. The tiny Y’arrow woman poked her head out the door, then gestured for her fellow Masters to enter. She turned to Indris. “Raise your hood and don’t let our guests see you. Look, listen, and learn. But under no circumstances are you to reveal yourself. Do I make myself clear?”
“Hmmm,” Aumh murmured. She gestured for Ojin-mar to take Indris to quiet seats where he would not be noticed.
The Master’s Round was a tiered well of black marble, each tier set with high-backed wooden chairs, all lacquered midnight. The domed ceiling featured a leaf-and-vine mosaic, from which hung a large ilhen lamp like an inverted orange and yellow ziggurat. There were faces from among the gathered Masters that Indris recognized, though more were unknown to him.
The first tier of the Round had ten chairs with black silk cushions on the seat, and glowing witchfire crescents rising from the carved wooden backs. Of the nine Masters who sat there, Indris recognized Femensetri, Aumh, and He-Who-Watches. The tenth chair was left vacant for Kemenchromis, the Arch-Scholar and Master Magnate of the Sēq Order who dwelled in Pashrea with the Empress-in-Shadows.
“Where’s Zadjinn?” Indris asked. “I expected him to be all over me like a cheap robe, but he’s not shown his face.”
“Zadjinn, and those Dhar Gsenni of whom we were aware, didn’t come to Amarqa after the Order was exiled,” Ojin-mar replied. “I suspect they’ll appear again when it’s most inconvenient for us. They were always the most secular of the factions within the Sēq, and our isolation wouldn’t serve them well.”
“They may be gone, but who’s that?” Indris nodded toward a strange figure, standing apart from the rest of the gathering. From what Indris could see beneath the iridescent cloak, the folds of which hung like wings, and trailed on the floor, the figure was broad shouldered, but lean, wearing baroque armor of interwoven bands and sharp-looking scales. There was no skin to be seen under armor, voluminous cloak, or the spade-shaped, horned, and mirrored mask that covered his face.
Ojin-mar frowned. “Somebody you shouldn’t have seen, and are best forgetting, if you know what’s good for you.”
“I can’t believe you really said that,” Indris murmured. “Let’s assume, just for the sake of argument, that I didn’t understand a word you just said. So . . .”
“I’m surprised you didn’t give Femensetri a stroke when she was your sahai!” Ojin-mar rolled his eyes at Indris’s expression. “We’ve not done right by you, but I didn’t tell you this, should it ever come to light. The . . . whatever it is, calls itself the Herald. It, and a few like it, arrived almost seven years ago. It doesn’t say much, but when it talks, the Suret listens.”
“The Herald of what?”
“That’s a bloody good question.”
A low chime sounded and the Masters, some seventy in all—and there were still almost as many empty chairs—quieted themselves. Twin doors of jade-embossed serill opened, and four Sēq Knights and as many armored Iku entered, flanking a smaller group of Shrīanese in silk over-robes that swept the floor as they walked. Their hoods were raised, but Indris could see their heads turning left and right, up and down. The visitors were escorted to the center of the Round, where the guards left them before departing.
Indris recognized the rahns, and frowned at seeing them here.
A vulture-faced Master of the Suret inclined his head toward the visitors, extending his hand, the nails of his long fingers polished ebon. “I am Sēq Magnate Bodekian of the Suret. You have broken your fast and drank of our water, and are safe by all the laws of sende for so long as you remain at Amarqa-in-the-Snows.”
“Tell us,” a portly older man said, “why have you come so far to be heard? Since we were expelled from Shrīan we have had no interest in your affairs.”
One visitor drew back her hood, exposing a sharp jaw and high cheekbones. Rosha was leaner than Indris remembered, almost gaunt. Her complexion had an ashen pall. She gestured to her companions, who revealed themselves to be Nazarafine and Siamak, looking equally worn.
“Masters of the Sēq Order of Scholars,” Rosha began in a cracked voice, “we, the rahns of the Federationist Party, come to you because we need your help.”
“Fah!” Femensetri said sharply. “The Asrahn, and the Teshri, made it perfectly clear the Sēq were no longer welcome in the Shrīanese Federation. I don’t recall you speaking up to change their minds, girl!”
“Awakened rahns are irrelevant,” the Herald said in what sounded like multiple different voices, each echoes of the other. “Only the Mahj, and the mahjirahns, are relevant.” The sepulchral voices sent a chill up Indris’s spine.
Rosha curled her lip at the Herald, but Nazarafine stepped forward before she could speak.
“The Imperialist sayfs control the Lower House of the Teshri.” Her voice was hoarse and wet. “But even they begin to question the wisdom of following too blindly a man who will promise all, and deliver only what suits himself. The Asrahn is supposed to be the keeper of the people, not one who straddles their backs as if they were beasts of burden. Already there are abductions, and threats, and violence in our cities. Cesare, the Speaker for the People, has been assassinated. Your absence has left a great rift. And what the witches have—”
“This is none of our affair,” Sēq Magnate Bodekian said.
“It could be, if you agreed to make it such.” Rosha glared at the old Sēq Master. She gave a great wracking cough that almost doubled her over. Indris rose slightly in his seat, but Ojin-mar held him back, shaking his head.
“How so?” Femensetri asked, leaning forward like a bird of prey, her gaze intent. “And why would we care for the woes of an ungrateful nation?”
Indris’s lips twitched in a smile. Because you miss being the puppeteers, and can’t wait to get your hands on the strings again.
“Corajidin and his colors are not fighting a conventional war,” Siamak said. “This is the precursor to Ajamensût, and we all know it. But rather than House against House, or Family against Family, it will be a civil war of assassins, the likes of which we have not seen in centuries! And there are . . . creatures among his ranks that baffle us. The witches have brought strange, unsettling allies with them. Corajidin’s forces scour the Rōmarq, digging in the dust for weapons and forbidden knowledge! He has occupied my prefecture, ignores my demands to leave. He tries to provoke a violent response.”
“We are beset on all sides, outnumbered and outmatched.” Nazarafine’s once ruddy skin was sallow, the plump cheeks sunken. “With each day, members of the Great Houses and the Hundred Families go missing. Intimidation has become the norm. And in your absence, self-serving groups have floated to the surface, like the alchemists and artificers, funded by the Banker’s House and organized by the Mercantile Guild.”
“You’ll learn to find your strength where you can.” Bodekian waved away their protests. “We’ve weathered this before.”
“Not this,” the Herald said. “You are unprepared.”
“Corajidin has never been so overt,” Siamak countered, looking at the Herald nervously. “This is an Asrahn who has folded back his sheets, and let any who would do his bidding climb into his bed.”
“And now,” Rosha added, “we offer a unique opportunity to redress what may have been a serious mistake.”
“Go on,” He-Who-Watches urged.
“Sayf-Ajomandyan, the Sky Lord, is prepared to call for a vote of no confidence in the Asrahn. The Secretary-Marshall and the Arbiter-Marshall are both in accordance. There is growing discontent in the Teshri, and we’re seeing the formation of new political parties that may come to challenge the authority of our traditional leadership.”
“But there’s nothing self-serving about that, is there, girl?” Femensetri’s legs were spread wide in her chair, elbows on her knees as she rested her chin on her fist.
“Of course,” Rosha agreed. “But better to relieve Corajidin of his power too soon than too late. I would not see us descend into war, Femensetri.”
“And who would replace Corajidin?” Bodekian asked.
“I’m the leader of the Federationist Party,” Rosha replied with no attempt at humility. “And I’d respect the Sēq, just as my Ancestors did. After all, were the Näsarat not once counted among your number? My late cousin, Indris—may he know peace in the Well of Souls—was a hero of the Order who died for his people. Can’t we find a common cause?”
Indris was about to stand, when Ojin-mar grabbed his arm.
Femensetri barked a laugh, and He-Who-Watches shot her an irritated glance. The Masters spoke among themselves, the crests of conversations breaking over each other. Indris drew back into the shadow of his hood, seeing the hungry looks on some of the Sēq Masters’ faces. Conversations close by turned to the familiar topics of power and influence, with little regard to the consequences. Indris turned to Ojin-mar, who wore a worried expression.
“When did we lose our way?” Ojin-mar whispered.
“I’ve never known it to be different.” Indris shrugged. “For an Order that’s supposed to serve, educate, and protect, there appear to be quite a few of your colleagues interested in leading, controlling, and manipulating.”
Rosha’s cough sounded wet. Her arms went around her abdomen, and she spat a gobbet of blood and pus into the floor. Drool trailed from her lips as she trembled. By the time she regained her feet, the Round had gone quiet.
“But there is more, isn’t there, girl?” Femensetri strode down, cassock snapping around her legs. The Stormbringer took Rosha by the chin, and stared into her eyes. She turned Rosha’s head this way and that, and felt her pulse. Indris saw the discolored rash revealed when Femensetri rolled up Rosha’s sleeve. The ancient scholar’s mindstone flared darkly, became a whirling vortex that cast deep, sickly shadows across Rosha’s skin. “You, and the others, you’re dying.”
“Yes,” Rosha said simply. She gestured to Siamak and Nazarafine. “We all became sick about a month ago. And it’s getting worse. We need your help, Scholar-Marshall.
Voices rose in hurried conversation as Femensetri gestured for the Sēq Knights and the Iku to take the rahns to the Thaumaturgeon’s Hall, where they could be diagnosed and treated.
The Masters continued to debate their place in the new regime, clutching at the straw Rosha had given them. Even in exile the Sēq had their hands on the fate of the nation, and Indris knew full well that the Sēq let go of nothing lightly.

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