SJA Turney: Insurgency (extract)

Author Website

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In his own words:

I live with my wife, son and daughter, and two (close approximations of) dogs in rural North Yorkshire, where my wife and I both grew up, surrounded by friends and family. A born and bred Yorkshireman with a love of the country, I cannot envisage spending my life anywhere else, though my anchor is sometimes tested as the wanderlust hits and we travel wherever I can find the breathtaking remains of the classical world. I have a love of travel and history, architecture and writing and those four interact well enough to keep me almost permanently busy.

Since leaving school and University, I have tried a great number of careers, including car sales, insurance, software engineering, computer network management, civil service and even paint ing and decorating sales. I have lived in four counties and travelled as widely as time and budget allowed and find myself finally back where I began and finally doing something I love.

Having written a number of unpublished short stories in my early days, I decided back in 2003 to try and write a full length novel. That was the start of Marius’ Mules. Being a lover of Roman history, I decided to combine my love of writing and my love of classical history. Marius’ Mules was followed two years later by Interregnum, my attempt to create a new fantasy story still with a heavy flavour of Rome. Since then, the success and popularity of both have inflated my head so that I can no longer comfortably fit through doors, and has spawned sequels to each work, with the fantasy trilogy complete, six volumes in the Marius’ Mules series, and two books of the Ottoman Cycle quadrilogy now out.

I maintain another website detailing the Roman sites I visit and photograph, and write a blog about books. I am an almost terminally chatty person. That’s just a due warning if you feel like contacting me (see above.) I am always happy to speak to people and have put together an FAQ gathered together from things I have been asked previously.

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Prologue

 

There is a strange saying among the northern folk:

‘a tripod may stand solid, but a ladder can be climbed.’

 

The emperor Kiva the Golden moved about his court like a gilded moth, flittering from flame to flame, moving on briskly before his wings were singed. A tall, willowy figure with slim build and slender fingers, a wise, contemplative face and his father’s eyes, Kiva played the role of ruler of the civilised world with aplomb. He was a master of tact and tactics, playing down the argumentative, suppressing the sycophantic, embracing the distant and fending off the o’er-close. Even now, as he was cornered by some brash western lord with rosy cheeks and an even rosier nose, Kiva laughed off some accidental slight, deftly swiping a crystal goblet of wine from a passing tray, slipping it smoothly into the drunken lord’s hand and removing the empty with barely a glance. As the lord realised he had a full glass once more he reached down and took a deep swig. When he looked up, the emperor was gone, swirling in the dance of sociability, quick-stepping with an ambassador from Pelasia.

Quintillian watched from the side-lines.

Not for him the pageantry of the imperial celebrations. He danced with the best of men, but only when his hand held a blade and the end of the dance meant the end of a life. Instead, the younger brother of the emperor, senior marshal of the armies and lord of Vengen, stood on a narrow, balustraded balcony overlooking the grand evening, half hidden in the shadows above the hall. Here in the old days musicians would sit by lamplight playing their hearts out. In these times it was more common for such entertainment to be placed among the guests for better captivation of their melody.

The balcony was dark, and Quintillian smiled as he took a sip of his wine and watched his brother at work. They had always been close, he and Kiva – closer than most brothers. But their father had brought them up like that – to believe that family was all, and that nothing in the world had the right, nor the power, to stand between two brothers who loved each other. Their father, of course, had suffered in his life, losing the friend who had been as close as a brother – Quintillian’s namesake, in fact – during the great interregnum. And he had lost a father – a great father – before he had even found out who he was. And so the emperor Darius had instilled in his sons the need for that bond and for a closeness with no secrets.

No secrets…

Some secrets were kept out of love, though. Hadn’t their father ever considered that?

It had been a hard time, five years ago, when their father had died. Darius had been an active emperor and a good one, long-reigning. After the twenty years of civil war and anarchy, he had put the empire back together, healed the wounds of the land and its people, and initiated a golden age that had lasted longer than anyone could have hoped. When he had finally passed on, in his chambers on the island of Isola, it had been after a full life and with a reign fulfilled. And he had followed all his friends to the grave, knowing that they were all waiting for him in the afterlife, for he was not a man to believe in the divinity of rulers, just like his sons.

Kiva had taken the purple cloak and the obsidian sceptre, the orb of the heavens in his other hand, the very next day. There had, of course, been no dissent over the natural succession of eldest son, though there had been a few voices that had expressed the quiet, careful opinion that the younger brother might have been stronger in the role. Not that they would have pushed for a change, and most certainly Quintillian would have refused. Not that he couldn’t have done the job, not that he would be unwilling to, but his brother was natural heir and that was all there was to it.

And Kiva was good at it. There was simply no denying that.

Five years to the day since the accession and the blessings, that purple cloak almost gleaming in the sun, so well brushed was the velvet. Five years of growth for the empire and of peace within its borders. Five years of strong economies and excellent external relations. It had seemed wholly appropriate to celebrate such a milestone in this manner, with everyone of any rank both within and without the empire all gathered at the palace in Velutio. And among the tanned visages of the imperial lords, governors, officers and administrators, there were different faces – interesting faces. The king of the Gotii beyond the Pula mountains with his retinue, for instance. It was the first time those violent raiders had visited the capital – the first time in the empire’s history when relations between the two people had been good enough. The Gota king sat with his three wives and his close companions not far from the emperor’s seat. He was a tall and broad man with a flat face, strong jaw, flaxen hair and ice blue eyes. His wives were… well, Quintillian had oft heard it said that the Gota prized strength and ability to bear children above simple looks. It had taken Quintillian some time to distinguish the wives from the bodyguards, of whom there were five, including relations of the king himself. They had been denied the right to carry weapons this close to the emperor, but there was no doubt in Quintillian’s mind that each of them could kill in the blink of an eye with just their bare hands. And there was the king’s seer: an old man with hair down to his backside, who wore dirty rags and the pelts of a number of unfortunate small animals, their bones clattering in his hair as he moved. He gave Quintillian the shivers, not least since he seemed to be the only person aware that the younger brother was here, having looked up into the shadows directly at him.

There were other northern chieftains who were in the process of buying into the imperial model in Kiva’s new world, too, though they all looked a little like the Gota king would have, had he tried to assimilate into imperial culture.

There were two kings from the dark-skinned lands south of Pelasia. They were interesting, but required a translator to pass even the slightest time of day, and Quintillian’s brief introduction to them at the start of the celebration had been hard work. Their world was so alien, and most of Quintillian’s hungry questions had been lost on them with no mutual frame of reference. Invites had even been sent to the lords of that peculiar eastern world beyond the steppes from whence silk came, though they had not come. Very likely the messengers never reached those lands. Few did, for the route to the silk lands crossed the most dangerous territories in the world. That had been a shame, though. Quintillian liked the feel of silk and it was said that the sharper a blade was, the more likely the miraculous material was to turn it aside. The idea of a light fabric that could stop a blade was simply too fascinating to him. One day, if they did not come here, he would have to go to them.

And, of course, there were the Pelasians. Three of their highest nobles were present, including a prince of the realm. Young Ashar Parishid though – son of Ashar the great, and God-King of Pelasia – sadly could not be here. A riding accident had left him with a badly broken leg a week earlier, and he had been advised by the best physicians in the world that he would recover fully, but there was simply no way he could leave his chambers for several weeks. It must had been a terrible blow for Ashar, for while he and the emperor – and Quintillian too, for that matter – were as close friends as it was possible for neighbouring rulers to be, Ashar would be particularly missing the opportunity to visit his beloved sister.

Jala.

The empress.

Jala, unlike her husband, sat upon her comfortable divan at the heart of proceedings, smiling and doling out compliments. Each of her honeyed words was as sought after as a lordship or a chest of gold, and each was prized and tightly-held once received. Her soft skin, the light brown of the deep desert, was more on show than was traditional among imperial ladies. But then Jala was no ordinary imperial lady. She was a princess of Pelasia, sister to the God-King, and now, for five years, wife of the emperor Kiva the Golden. And she was exquisite.

Yes, some secrets had to be kept for the good of all concerned.

For two years now, Kiva had been pushing him to marry – to take a wife from among the many beauties of the imperial court. His brother simply could not understand why Quintillian remained alone. But how could he marry a woman knowing that his heart was already in the care of another. It beat silently, deep in his chest, only for Jala. And it would beat silently for her until the end of his days, for even the hint of such a thing carried the scent of tragedy, and neither Kiva nor Jala deserved such a thing. So Quintillian would remain alone. What need had he of a wife anyway? True soldiers should not take wives, for a warrior took a promising girl and turned her into a hollow widow. It was the way of things. And while there was no true need for an officer of such high command to involve himself directly in combat, there was something in the song of steel and the dance of blades that called to Quintillian. He could no more refuse to fight than he could refuse to breathe… than he could open his heart…

Something was happening now, down in the hall. Quintillian squinted into the thick, cloying atmosphere of oil lamps, braziers and incense.

An argument had broken out between two guests. Ordinarily such things would be unthinkable in the imperial presence, but the variety of uncivilised figures present had made such things almost an inevitability. That was why his favourite marshal, Titus, son of Tythias, had positioned burly, competent imperial guards in strategic positions around the hall, subtly-armed.

Quintillian contemplated descending from the balcony to deal with the problem, but Titus’ men were already moving to contain the trouble, so the younger brother relaxed a little and leaned on the balustrade, watching.

‘Trouble,’ muttered a familiar voice behind him. Quintillian didn’t rise or turn, simply smiling as he continued to lean on the balcony.

‘Titus. How did you know where I was.’

‘I am your brother’s best officer and commander of his guard. I know where everyone is. It’s part of my job.’ Titus Tythianus slipped in next to Quintillian, leaning his scarred forearms on the stone rail, waggling his nine remaining fingers.

‘Yes, it seems there’s a spot of trouble,’ Quintillian noted. ‘Shall we intervene?’

Titus snorted. ‘Not unless they threaten imperial guests. In some of these cultures they murder each other for entertainment. If it gets out of hand my men will deal with it. It’s unseemly anyway for a member of the imperial family to involve himself in a brawl.’

Quintillian chuckled and watched as the two arguing groups moved closer.

‘I recognise the Gota one, but I can’t place the white-haired one,’ Quintillian said almost conversationally.

Below, the crowd was beginning to pull apart, leaving a circle at the centre, where one of the Gotii – a strapping young man… not a woman? No, not one of the wives. A big strong warrior with a face like an abused turnip was stamping his feet like a petulant child, roaring imprecations in a tongue that sounded like someone gargling with broken glass. The crowd was fascinated, though not enough to involve themselves any closer than at the level of interested spectator.

At the far side of the expanding circle, one of the northern lords was sneering and waving a deprecating finger at the Gota warrior. But it was not that lord who was stepping forward. It was a strange pale figure. Both northerners – lord and servant – looked in build and physical makeup to have far more in common with the king of the Gotii than their imperial hosts, yet they wore breeches and tunic in the imperial style, if of an outdated northern cut and in semi-barbaric colours.

Borderlanders.

It was a recent process, begun by the emperor Darius, but continued by Kiva in the same vein. You took the barbarian tribes who lived around the borders and you brought them to the empire. You introduced them to the benefits of imperial culture, engineering and science, and you dazzled them with what they could have. Then you offered to send them men to help build aqueducts and temples, bridges and mills. You often built their chiefs palaces to house their egos. And all you asked in return was that they pay lip service to the emperor and protect the borders from the less civilised barbarians beyond. As a system it made sense. And it had proven to work too, for already, a decade on, some of those barbarian nobles had brought their lands into the empire entire, becoming lords in their own right and expanding the borders through gentle, subtle assimilation, as the same process then began on the tribes beyond.

But they were decades away from being true imperial subjects, even if that were ever to happen.

Certainly, looking at the behaviour unfolding in the hall below, this particular northern border lord seemed to be far from cultured.

‘The noble is Aldegund, lord of Adrennas,’ Titus said quietly. ‘He’s one of the ones your father first settled. He’s been a lord now for over five years, and two more semi-barbarian border tribes owe him fealty already. He alright, I suppose. A bit brash and still far from courtier material, but he’s loyal and he knows he’s onto a good thing. His ghost I don’t know, but he’s a reedy fellow. Don’t much fancy his chances against the Gota.’

‘Will you have your men stop it?’

Titus shook his head. ‘Aldegund should know better, and his man is about to learn a horrible lesson. But once he’s seen this, he won’t do the same again. The Gotii take insults very personally, and they cleanse their spirit of insult with the blood of the offender. That pale, ghostly fellow is about to die. Unless he’s very lucky. Maybe the Gota warrior’s feeling generous and he’ll just rip off an arm. They are celebrating and having a drink after all.’

The Gota warrior had removed his leather vest and was stretching his arms, moving like a dancer. Quintillian appreciated his form. He was a warrior bred to the art. The white-haired, pale northerner opposite him just sneered and took another drink from his cup.

‘He really doesn’t know what he’s in for,’ Titus snorted.

Quintillian frowned. ‘A gold corona on the pale one.’

Titus’ eyebrow ratcheted upwards. ‘Are you mad?’

‘He’s not afraid.’

‘Maybe that’s because he’s stupid? Aldegund certainly seems to be. And that half-naked warrior is the third bastard son of the Gota king. He’ll have been trained with the best of the Gotii.’

‘There’s something about the white one. I think you’re underestimating him. Is it a wager?’

‘Damn right it’s a wager,’ snorted Titus. ‘And make it five.’

‘Five it is.’

Down below, the crowd was now in a wide circle around the two combatants, Titus’ guardsmen in plain evidence, making sure the duel was contained. The Gota was snarling again in his horrible language. The icy white opponent was examining his nails.

‘Make it ten,’ Quintillian said quietly.

‘Done.’

At a command from the king, the two men moved towards one another. On the balcony, Quintillian glanced to the side. Titus looked hungry, like a spectator at the pit fights, and the sight of him leering down at the two men made the prince smile.

The Gota warrior struck the first blow, which had seemed inevitable. Stepping the last pace into the fight, the hairy north-easterner with the naked torso and the leather kirtle delivered a powerful punch to the ghost’s upper left arm at a point that would surely deaden the muscle for some time. Barely had the white-haired northerner had a breath to recover before the second blow took him in the gut, followed by a head-butt that sent him staggering back a pace. The Gota threw his arms out and roared as his father and the other Gotii cheered him on. The crowd thrummed with inappropriate interest.

‘Easiest money I’ll ever make,’ snorted Titus.

‘I’m still not so sure.’

The white man was stepping slowly backwards, regaining his senses as he went, while the Gota played to the crowd, roaring and beating his chest.

‘He’s not really got going yet,’ Titus hissed. ‘I’ve fought Gotii. This is just warming up. I kid you not – he’ll rip off the man’s arm. I’ve seen it done and by smaller Gotii than him!’

‘He’s predictable. The ghost isn’t.’

I predict he’s going to die,’ snorted Titus. ‘He never even raised a fist to block that flurry!’

‘Precisely. He never even tried. He was seeing what the man could do. Testing him.’

‘If he’s very lucky he’ll test him to death.’

The pale figure had stopped now and was pacing forward again. He still didn’t appear prepared for the fight. He was sauntering as though he wandered quiet gardens. The Gota warrior snarled and came on once more, smacking his fists against his hips and then bringing up his hands into a fighting stance. As they closed to three or four paces the Gota leapt, swinging his punch, aiming for the pale man’s other arm to deaden a second muscle and leave him largely helpless.

It all happened in such a blur that the pair on the balcony almost missed it. A moment later, the ghost was standing behind his opponent, and the Gota was dead.

Titus blinked.

As the burly warrior had swung and stepped in to the strike, the white-haired man had simply bent like a stalk of grass in the wind, slipped beneath the lunging arm, and delivered his own blows – three in such quick succession that they were almost invisible to the naked eye. But Quintillian had seen the angle of the moves and could see the results clearly enough to identify the strikes. The numb arm he’d been unable to raise but had instead used it to grab hold of the pronounced hamstring behind his opponent’s knee, wrenching it agonisingly. And even in the blink of an eye that his opponent had begun to collapse, white-hair’s other hand had jabbed twice. The first blow had struck at the point where shoulder meets neck, paralysing the muscle there and thus – along with the hamstring – rendering the Gota’s entire left side useless. But as quick as the thumb had left the flesh, it struck again, a jagged thumbnail tearing a small nick in the neck. It was a minute hole. But it was well placed. The vein beneath was an important one, and the dark blood was jetting from it with impressive strength.

The white man straightened, examined his nails again, and now chewed off the jagged point he’d deliberately left as he strolled around the stricken man and back to his lord.

‘Shit on a fat stick!’ breathed Titus, slapping the balustrade. ‘How the hell did he do that?’

‘Planning,’ Quintillian smiled. ‘He was willing to take a couple of blows to size up his chances.’

‘I’m glad he’s on our side. At least I won’t worry so much about the northern borders any more!’

Quintillian chuckled as Titus slipped the coins grudgingly into his palm. Down below, Lord Aldegund was congratulating his man in a quiet, steady tone – the white man’s name, it transpired, was Halfdan. No one seemed to be paying any attention to the dying Gota at the centre of the circle, who had now collapsed to the floor, entirely useless and paralysed on one side, desperately trying to hold his vein shut with his other arm as he slipped and slid in the growing pool of his own blood. But the pressure was too much and he was already becoming weak. The warrior looked up imploring at his father, the Gota king, but all he found there was contempt as the king turned his face from the bastard son who had so clearly disappointed him.

The Gota champion died unsung and alone on the floor and such was the speed and efficiency of the palace staff and the guard that within a matter of minutes all that remained to mark the passing of these events was a clean damp section of marble.

Quintillian gave an odd half smile as Titus disappeared back to the stairs muttering to himself. The younger brother could see the emperor moving among them now, absolving Aldegund and his man of any blame in what had happened and giving reassurance, then passing on to the Gota king – not commiserating, since clearly the king cared little – but empathising and discussing the qualities of warriors. Kiva may not have the makings of a fighter himself, but he knew what made one, and he was a consummate politician.

Perhaps Titus was right and men like this Halfdan were the future of border defences. It certainly freed up the military from dull garrison life on the edge of empire and made them useful for such things as construction of roads and aqueducts, keeping banditry down and clearing the seas of pirates. The north, then, was protected, and with Pelasia tied to them by marriage the south was settled. To the west: the open ocean. Only the lands to the east were still troublesome, but they would ever be so.

For a moment, Quintillian wondered whether the nomad horse clans of the steppe would be amenable to a similar arrangement as the barbarians in the north. No… they had no concept of home or ownership. They were nomadic. How could a people who never stopped moving guard a border? Besides, trying to get the thousand disparate horse clans to agree on anything together would be like trying to nail fog to a tree. The east would always be a fluid border with the risk of banditry and raids, and the imperial military would need to keep men around that edge of the world for safety.

Lost in thought about the strange eastern land of silk-makers, the ephemeral nature of the horse clans and the solidity of imperial frontiers, Quintillian had no idea he had company until there was a faint rustle behind him. He turned, startled.

Jala stood silhouetted in the faint light of the stairwell, the back-glow making her robe surprisingly gauzy and throwing her shape into sharp relief most inappropriately. Quintillian swallowed down his panic and his desire somewhat noisily and threw a fraternal smile across his face.

‘Dearest sister.’

‘Quintillian, why will you not join the festivities? Must you lurk here in the shadows like some monster in a poor play?’

She reached out and grasped his upper arms in her warm, sensuous fingers, and Quintillian gave an involuntary shudder.

‘I… I don’t like parties. I don’t socialise well.’

‘Nonsense,’ Jala smiled. ‘I have seen you do just that many times.’

‘I’m not in the mood, Jala.’

Her lip stuck out slightly in a barely discernible pout, and Quintillian almost laughed despite himself.

‘Come on, dear Quintillian.’

‘I really cannot. I should be doing many other things. And you should be with your husband down there.’

Without warning, Jala leaned close and planted a kiss upon his lips before leaning back with a strange smile. ‘Your brother is too busy with affairs of state to keep me company, and I tire of all these rough northerners. I need company, Quintillian. Good company.’

Quintillian stared in abject panic.

‘You look like a hare caught in the hunter’s gaze,’ she chuckled. ‘Will you come join me, then?’

Quintillian’s voice seemed to have vanished. It was there somewhere, though, deep inside, and it took a great deal of coaxing to draw it up into his throat where it still wavered and croaked.

‘I’ll be down shortly.’

‘Don’t keep me waiting,’ Jala smiled, and swayed off back into the stairwell.

Quintillian stared at her retreating form and continued to gaze at the empty archway long after she had gone. His mind was churning like a winter sea, his heart hammering out like a cavalry horse at the charge. Had that been innocent? Was he reading something into what just happened that wasn’t truly there?

But Quintillian prided himself on his ability to read people. Had not his instincts just won him ten gold corona? And he had seen Jala’s eyes as she’d lunged forth and kissed him. It had been as deliberate a blow as any he’d ever struck with a sword. It had been no kiss of brother and sister, for all its seeming innocence from the outside. He had seen through her eyes. He had seen into her soul. And there it had been: the reflection of himself. The longing. The desire. Suppressed beneath a veneer of civilisation and correctness. She had wanted him as he wanted her!

The realisation almost floored him.

He turned back to the room, suddenly aware he was trembling and sweating coldly. Down below, he saw Jala emerge once more into the hall, barely noticed amid the rich and the powerful. Kiva spotted her through the crowd and gave her a warm smile, which she returned easily, but he was trapped in conversation by a pair of stocky, swarthy lords and as soon as smiles had been exchanged he was back again, drawn into their talk. Jala took her seat at the room’s centre once more, where she became an island amid a sea of busy socialising.

Quintillian stared at her.

What should he do? What could he do?

A line had been crossed, a barrier broken. And no hand in the world could repair that barrier. No digit could redraw the line. Why were human hearts such fragile things? As fragile as an empire, perhaps? An empire could not ruin a heart, but for certain a heart could shatter an empire if misused.

The panic was gone, but it had left a desolate, hollow uncertainty in its place.

He had to do something, but what?

He made the mistake – or was it a mistake? – of looking down at Jala just as she looked up at him from her divan, and his gaze swept in through her eyes and deep into her heart once more, leaving him in absolutely no doubt now that Jala shared his feelings. Oh, he did not doubt that she loved Kiva. And so did he. And therein lay the worst of the problem, for he could no more hurt his brother than he could strike off his own head.

Fragile. Hearts and empires.

Whatever he did, it would have to take him away from Jala, he realised, for if they remained in the same place, no matter how hard they might fight it, trouble would be inevitable. One man could live with impossible, unrequited love, no matter how painful. But to have that love shared could bring down the whole empire.

No, he had to find a way out somehow.

And soon.

 

Insurgency is published by Canelo priced £3.99 as an ebook.

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Filed under Fantasy, Historical Fiction, S J A Turney

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