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  • Published: 1 December 2020
  • ISBN: 9781787631052
  • Imprint: Bantam Press
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 560
  • RRP: $32.99

Hollow Empire

Extract

1

Jovan

You never get used to poisoning a child.

Dija Oromani arrived in Silasta four months after the siege ended, in that strange period teetering between chaos and routine, when my sister’s health had recovered enough for her to return home but not to work, and the last of the billeted citizens had returned to the lower city. At eleven years old, the youngest daughter of my second cousin, Dija radiated quiet earnestness, with thick glasses over bright clever eyes that reminded me of my uncle, and a cloud of hair like Kalina’s. How easily she had slipped into our household. The Oromani family needed an heir to eventually inherit my Council seat, one young enough to learn the machinations of government and strong enough to withstand the other requirements of my position.

Six months after she arrived, I poisoned her for the first time.

I knew it was too early in her training. In better conditions we would have studied for several years, building a base of knowledge before taking that critical step. But at eleven, almost twelve, she had been five years behind the ideal starting age for proofing. We couldn’t afford to wait years. It was with an anxious heart and shaking hands that I added bloodroot to the ground oku meat in our evening meal, and a long night of doubts and guilt as I sat beside her bed, holding her vomit pail and cooling her sweaty forehead with a wet cloth, murmuring weak comforts. She had recovered, and apologized—apologized!—for failing to detect it. Almost two years had passed since that first night, but I remembered the twisting discomfort in my own stomach. Harming a child was wrong; it was against every deep biological instinct. And yet.

And yet I had poisoned her then, and again, and again. In minuscule quantities, over the two years she had been my apprentice, to build her immunity to some of the most common, but non-lethal, poisons she was likely to encounter. In larger doses, to demonstrate the cues, only learned through experience, that could one day save her life and her charge’s. Occasionally, to surprise or test her. The last I hated the most, but it formed the most critical part of our training.

I had failed Tain once. In his thin face and dulled complexion, his drastically reduced appetite, his swiftness to tire, the reminders of that failure faced me every day. I was determined never to so fail again. But one day, through poison or some other means, I would be gone, and Dija would be the last quiet shield between the Chancellor and those who meant him harm. It was my responsibility to ensure her readiness. Perhaps one day there would be no need to fear a silent attack on Sjona’s ruling family from within or without. Until then, though it tugged at my heart and slow-soured my relationship with Hadrea, I would lace Dija’s morning tea and prepare small, dangerous tablets, and nurse her back to health, and remember that our country, for all its flaws, was worth this. Worth my life. Worth hers.

It had to be.

 

The darkened theater was too hot, and the glare from the single focused lamp on the stage left bright smears behind my eyelids when I squeezed my eyes shut.

“Eyes open or you’ll miss it.” A whisper in my left ear.

I kept them closed. “I have a headache.”

Can a grin be audible? I could have sworn I heard one. “Another one? You should see a physic about that, Jov. You might be allergic to something.”

I opened my eyes a crack to scowl at my friend. Even in the darkness of the audience seating the brightness of his teeth revealed the width of his smile. “I am allergic to something,” I muttered. “I’m allergic to this sh—”

“Shh!” I shifted my glare to my other side. Kalina was two seats down, and though it was too dim to read her expression, her tone was severe. “They’ve worked hard and you’re being very rude.”

“It’s all right for you,” I grumbled back. Down on the stage, the lights had expanded to reveal the actor playing my sister, crying far more attractively than any human had a right to at a simulation of Chancellor Caslav’s funeral. Stagehands cunningly hidden from view fanned the actor so her dress caught dramatically in the “breeze,” and the roguish young man cast as Tain—all right, I could admit he was a reasonable likeness—laid a comforting arm around her shoulders. A heavy chord sounded from the small orchestra and the light narrowed in on an ascetic figure who had been lurking behind the glamorous pair. I tried not to bristle. The Jovan character, while ostensibly one of the protagonists of the play, skulked and glared, creeping around the stage, tailing after the luminous pair of Kalina and Tain like some kind of tame but badly socialized animal.

“He’s quite handsome, Uncle,” Dija whispered from beside me. Her gaze looked innocent behind her thick glasses. I couldn’t tell if she was teasing me, or offering serious consolation. Someone on my other side suppressed a small snort or chuckle.

“Maybe you should try wearing those pants, Jov,” Tain suggested. “They’re all the rage now, and they’d really show off your thighs.”

“Shh,” I hissed back. “They’ve worked very hard and you’re being rude, Chancellor.”

He buried a laugh with a hasty cough.

I’d read the script in advance, but the text had not quite conveyed the tone of the play, and I understood now why the Theater-Guilder had been so insistent I see the early showing, before the rest of the city was talking about it. It was going to draw attention to me again, and from the looks of it, reignite speculation about my relationship with Tain. The stage Jovan seemed more poisoner than proofer, whispering worries about traitors and urging Tain to take action against them, and presented more as spy and adviser than friend. After all, my part in the public story could be distilled merely to the most dramatic and violent events. Tain had discovered and owned up to the city’s dark past and secured peace between the rebels and the city citizens; Kalina had uncovered the plot by the Warrior- Guilder, Aven, almost dying to warn us all of her treachery, and Hadrea of course had taken on the powerful water spirit, Os-Woorin, and saved the city from destruction. But me? I had covered up Tain’s poisoning, killed the traitor Marco, and blown off the Council chamber roof to free the trapped Council from the fi re. My part was not so easily smoothed into celebrated heroism.

Just when my brief fame—or notoriety—after the siege was starting to fade away, too. I tried not to sigh. This was far from the first production of the siege of Silasta; apparently the residents of this city didn’t mind reliving their own trauma in dramatized form, as there’d been a string of the bloody things. But this one had three times the budget of its most recent competitor, and as the highlight show of the karodee, guaranteed high audience numbers. The international guests currently swelling our population seemed fascinated by our brief civil war and the apparent reemergence of an ancient magic. I hadn’t even been a character in several of the earlier productions but now I could look forward to being the source of scrutiny and fascination once more.

As if she’d heard my thoughts, Varina swiveled round in front of me, an apologetic wince and spread hands conveying her helplessness. The Performers’ Guild contributed to funding the play, but did not control its script or its dramatic choices. The producers could have cast me as the villain and there’d have been no recourse. At least this way I was forewarned.

I shrugged at Varina. Be a good sport about it, Kalina had beseeched me, and lo, here I was, being as sporting as sporting could be.

I squirmed in my seat as the rebel army came onstage, complete with actors under cunningly flexible coverings to portray animal mounts, dancing together to threatening music from the orchestra. Someone in the audience sucked in their breath loudly when the peace negotiator was shot down in alarmingly realistic fashion and collapsed in a spotlight in the center of the stage, halfway between the army and the cleverly designed wall set. I was uncomfortably aware real people had died in this conflict. Chancellor Caslav and my uncle Etan had been the first victims, but no less important had been the hundreds on both sides, caught in an engineered conflict that had claimed their lives. This wasn’t some ancient tale about people who lived long ago. That peace negotiator had worked at the Administrative Guild, just like my sister. Her family probably lived here. How would they feel, seeing this actor lying so still, punctured with crimson for the entertainment of the audience? It was a real thing that happened, not a story.

And yet. Stories are important, Tain had told me when we’d been given the script and the warning. Stories are how we talk about who we are, and who we want to be. We were trying to build something out of the twisted mess of old wounds that were the foundation of this country, and we needed a narrative to carry people on both sides along with it. And I had to admit, if grudgingly, that while it wasn’t fun to experience us all portrayed like fictional characters, the “story” being told was, overall, a fair one.

The production had split the narrative between the city and the countryfolk. Tain, the earnest young leader, passionate but humble; Kalina, his brilliant, overlooked strategist; and me . . . well. Me as the suspicious, mistrustful harbinger of doom, lurking and scowling. They contrasted our crisis with a Darfri family who personified the effects of the slow, poisonous oppression our families had inflicted on the estates, and the depths to which working people had been driven to seek justice.

The political commentary was sharp enough that no one could call the play propaganda. They hadn’t crafted it to pander to the Council; the audience would be left in no doubt as to how the rich and powerful had set the pieces in motion that would be used so effectively against us all. But they hadn’t cast us all as villains, either. Still, I burned with remembered shame watching the three of us onstage, floundering as we tried to understand the rebellion, blocked at every turn by faceless, pompous actors playing our fellow Councilors. Literally faceless. Rather than identify individual Councilors, the company had elected to portray most of the old Council as a dozen or so actors dressed alike, faces hidden by blank dark masks, dancing together as a single monolith.

“Listen, at least you got a face,” Tain whispered, as if he’d read my mind, and even I had to grin. Most of the surviving members of that original Council were in this theater, watching, and some of them would be extremely annoyed to find themselves relegated to “dancer-third-from-the-left.” On the other hand, some of them ought to be grateful they’d been absorbed into the monolith rather than had their individual actions scrutinized. I caught Dija watching me and smoothed my face. Resolving to be a better example for my young apprentice, I settled back on the bench, rested my chin in my hands, and tried to watch the play as if I were just an ordinary spectator.

I could acknowledge—in the spirit of good sportsmanship—that while the music was a little obvious and wouldn’t win the composers acclaim, the actors were decent, the dancers good, and the production and props top notch. The tumblers who rolled backward down the ladders during the first attempt at the walls (crafted of stackable light blocks, and assembled with supernatural swiftness in the scene changes) fell so convincingly I was sure they’d be injured, and when one of the Darfri family characters was killed on the walls by the hand of the enormous man playing Marco, the acting Warrior-Guilder, sniffs and stifled sobs could be heard throughout the dark chamber. Sometimes a conversation was eerily accurate (albeit with rather more pirouettes than I remembered) and other times I found myself confused about the sequence of events, even though I’d lived through them. The fake headache had become all too real.

During the fight in the dark tunnels under the city, when miners had dug their way under the walls, the whole theater went pitch black, the only light a weak, bobbing lantern as Tain raced around unseen obstacles across the stage. The harsh clang of metal on metal burst suddenly from behind us, in the back corners of the theater; Dija squeaked with fright and I jumped at the shock of both the noise and the sudden presence of her small, warm hand, clutching at mine. I squeezed it uncertainly. The noise was disorienting and alarming, but the fear and confusion the sounds in the dark evoked did pull me back to that horrible night.

And yet, there was something more bothering me than just the scene on the stage. I looked around surreptitiously, trying to make out the dark shapes at the edges of the seating. Actors and stagehands had made their way past us—or come through some concealed entrance—without me noticing. A familiar prickle of fear crawled down the back of my neck and lodged in my chest at the thought that we had been quietly surrounded, albeit benignly.

If I kept my eyes away from the chaotic lantern on the stage, my vision adjusted and I could make out the distinctive markings on the uniforms of the men and women stationed at both back doors. Tain’s personal guard, nicknamed the blackstripes, were now a permanent feature of his public life. After everything that had happened, it was nonsensical and potentially destabilizing to continue the polite social fiction that Tain wasn’t being protected. But though they were dedicated and alert, I was never able to relax when Tain was in a crowd, and over time my concern had started to be seen by others as paranoia.

In the immediate aftermath of the siege everyone had listened, and the Council had been all too eager to have Aven and the mercenaries we had captured questioned, to fund audits of the payments that had supported the rebellion, but as the search dragged on and answers never surfaced, interest in finding out who had backed and incited Aven fizzled out. The longer we went without another strike from our unknown enemy, the more people convinced themselves the threat had passed, or worse, that it had gone no deeper than a corrupt Warrior-Guilder looking to create her own empire. Attention and funding turned to tolerance, to mollification, disinterest, and eventually faint embarrassment. Even staunch allies had taken to suggesting I was making connections where there were none, imagining assassins in the shadows.


Hollow Empire Sam Hawke

Continuing the epic tale begun in the multi-award-winning City of Lies - a thrilling story of subterfuge and treachery and wild and ancient magic...

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