Grey Sister – Mark Lawrence

FOR THOSE OF you who have had to wait a while for this book I provide brief catch-up notes to Book One, so that your memories may be refreshed and I can avoid the awkwardness of having to have characters tell each other things they already know for your benefit. Here I carry forward only what is of importance to the tale that follows. You may find yourself wondering about Keot when he is mentioned. You’re supposed to wonder. You will find out. He’s not mentioned in Book One. Abeth is a planet orbiting a dying red sun. It is sheathed in ice and the vast majority of its people live in a fifty-mile-wide ice-walled corridor around the equator. An artificial moon, a great orbiting mirror, keeps the Corridor free of ice by focusing the sun’s rays into it each night. When, thousands of years ago, the four original tribes of men came to Abeth from the stars they found the ruins of a vanished people they call the Missing. The empire is bounded by the lands of the Scithrowl to the east and by the Sea of Marn to the west. Across the sea the Durns rule. At the end of Book One Durnish invaders were raiding inland from the coast. As the sun weakens, the ice continues a slow advance despite the warmth of the moon’s nightly focus. As the Corridor is squeezed nations look to their neighbours for new territory.

The empire’s nobility are the Sis. The suffix is attached to the name of ennobled families e.g. Tacsis, Jotsis etc. The four original tribes that came to Abeth were the gerant, hunska, marjal, and quantal. Their blood sometimes shows in the current population, conferring unique powers. The gerant grow very large, the hunska are fantastically swift, the marjal can manifest all manner of minor to medium magics, including shadow weaving, sigil writing, and mastery of elements. The quantal can access the raw power of the Path and manipulate the threads that are woven to create reality. The ships that brought the tribes from the stars were said to have been powered by shiphearts. A small number of these orbs exist within the empire and are highly valued, as they enhance the magical abilities of quantals and marjals.

The Missing left behind structures called Arks. Three exist within the Corridor. The emperor’s palace is built around one. There are no reliable records of anyone being able to open the Ark, but a faked prophecy predicts the coming of a Chosen One who will be able to. Nona Grey is a peasant child from a nameless village. She was given to the child-taker Giljohn who sold her to the Caltess, where ring-fighters are trained and pitted against each other. Nona ended up at the Convent of Sweet Mercy, where novices are trained in service to the Ancestor. Novices take orders as one of four classes of nun. Holy Sister (entirely religious duties), Grey Sister/Sister of Discretion (trained in assassination and stealth), Red Sister/Martial Sister (trained in combat), Holy Witch/Mystic Sister (trained to walk the Path). Nona has proven to be a triple-blood.

An incredibly rare occurrence. She has hunska, marjal, and quantal skills. Nona has wholly black eyes, a side-effect from taking a dangerous antidote. She has no shadow, having cut it free whilst fighting Yisht. Yisht is a woman of the ice-tribes and is in the employ of the emperor’s sister Sherzal. Yisht stole the Sweet Mercy shipheart and killed Nona’s friend Hessa. Nona is hated by Lord Thuran Tacsis as she first wounded and later killed his son Raymel, a gerant ring-fighter. She is also hated by Thuran’s surviving son, Lano. The Tacsis sent assassins, known as Noi-Guin, after Nona. Once hired, the Noi-Guin rarely cease their efforts until the target is dead, even if it requires years of patience.

During the theft of the shipheart Nona was betrayed by her friend and fellow novice Clera Ghomal. Among Nona’s remaining friends are novices Ara, Darla, Ruli, and Jula. Arabella Jotsis is from a powerful family and a rare two-blood, having both hunska and quantal skills. Darla is the daughter of an important officer in the emperor’s armies and has gerant blood. Ruli has minor marjal skills. Jula is very studious and hopes to become a Holy Sister. Zole is a significant novice. She is from the ice-tribes and came to the convent at Sherzal’s insistence, used as an unwitting distraction to help in the theft of the shipheart. She is the only known four-blood with access to all the skills of the original tribes. Many consider her to be the Chosen One from prophecy.

Under the prophecy Zole is the Argatha, and Nona is her Shield. The Convent of Sweet Mercy is led by Abbess Glass, a woman whose connections in the Church and beyond reach further than expected. Most senior among the nuns are the sister superiors, Wheel and Rose. Sister Wheel teaches Spirit classes. Sister Rose runs the sanatorium. Other important figures are Sister Tallow, who teaches Blade; Sister Pan, who teaches Path; and Sister Apple, who teaches Shade. Sister Kettle is a Grey Sister based at the convent. She and Apple are lovers. There are four classes/stages that novices move through as they train to take holy orders as nuns. Red Class, Grey Class, Mystic Class, and Holy Class.

Book One ended with Nona in Grey Class, aged around eleven or twelve. Novices take new names when they become nuns. Nona will become Sister Cage. Ara will be Sister Thorn. Book One ended with Nona having just killed Raymel Tacsis in the wilds. Sisters Kettle and Apple were secretly watching over the novices but Kettle was poisoned by a Noi-Guin assassin tracking Nona, and Apple has gone to her aid. PROLOGUE THE DISSOLUTION OF any monastery or convent is not something to be lightly undertaken. Even the might of House Tacsis, whose line was born of emperors, may not suffice. Lano Tacsis came to the Rock of Faith garbed for war, his armour Ark-steel made bloody by the light of a thousand crimson stars. Before him the serried ranks of his personal guard, the iron core of the Tacsis army, forged by his father.

Soldiers tempered in battles upon the empire’s eastern borders and in the west upon the beaches of the Marn. But Lano’s confidence rested on more than the spears of his army. Noi-Guin walked with him, brought from the shadowed halls of the Tetragode. When a child is given to the Noi-Guin it is sacrificed to the dark. Some few may survive the training but the adult who then descends the fortress walls on a moonless stretch of night a decade and more later will be a different person. They will have been cut free of any allegiance to parent or sibling, pruned from the Ancestor’s tree. They will be Noi-Guin —instruments of death, beyond morality, beneath religion, dedicated only to the task they have been given. The richest among the Sis may purchase their services but few missions require more than one child of the Tetragode. None living remember more than three acting together. Even the oldest stories never speak of more than five.

Eight walked with Lano Tacsis the day he came to the convent that stood upon the Rock of Faith. “Nona Grey? You’re sure?” Lano raised his visor to squint at the dark figure standing alone in the path of his army, tiny before the great band of pillars. “Sister Cage . returned to Sweet Mercy.” Fist smacked palm, gauntlets clashing. “Oh this is perfect! I feared she had gone despite my instructions.” A glance to his left. “It’s her, you’re sure?” Clera Ghomal lifted her dark eyes to him. “Of course. Which other would let me go?” • • • SISTER CAGE WAITED, shadowless among the shadows of the pillars.

The old nuns and young novices watched from within the stone forest behind her. When the Tacsis came and the blood began to flow Sister Rose would still be fighting her own battle somewhere back there, striving to save Sister Thorn from her injuries. Clera had left Thorn bleeding. She could have killed her in a moment. But she didn’t. At least there was that. The sword Cage held offered its sharpness to the world, and the Corridor wind, divided by its edge, hissed in pain. Cage’s sister had waited for her battle, hunting her centre, seeking silence and stillness while the Pelarthi advanced. Few Red Sisters had ever left the Convent of Sweet Mercy better able than Sister Thorn to practise what the mistresses of Blade and Path had taught them. Sister Cage walked to a different beat.

The holy disdain anger, for what faith is not, at its core, about acceptance of things you cannot change? The wise call wrath unwise for few truths are to be found there. Those who rule us stamp upon rage for they see it clearly, knowing it for the fire that it is, and who invites such hungry flames among that which they possess? To Sister Cage though, fury was a weapon. She opened herself to the anger she had held at bay. Her friend lay dying. Her friend. There is a purity in rage. It will burn out sorrow. For a time. It will burn out fear. Even cruelty and hatred will seek shelter, rage wants none of them, only to destroy.

Rage is the gift our nature gives to us, shaped by untold years. Why discard it? Every law of church or state seeks to separate you from your anger. Every rule is there to tame you—to take from your hands that which you should own. Every stricture aims to place the vengeance that is yours in the grasp of courts, juries, justice and judges. Books of law look to replace what you know to be right with lines of ink. Prisons and executioners stand only to keep your hands from the blood of those who have wronged you. Every part of it exists to put time and distance between deed and consequence. To lift us from our animal nature, to cage and tame the beast. Sister Cage watched her enemy, bright in steel upon the Rock. Hers the anger of an ocean wave rolling over deep waters to spend its white fury against the shore, one and then the next, relentless, tearing down high cliffs, pounding rocks to pebbles, grinding pebbles to sand, and thus are mountains laid low.

Hers the storm’s wrath, thunder-shaken, sharp with lightning, blown on a wind that rips the oldest trees from the hardness of the ground. Hers the defiance of stone, raised in outrage against cold skies. Hers the anger that sits like broken glass within a chest, the anger that will allow no sleep, no retreat, no compromise. • • • NONA GREY RAISES her head and regards her foe through midnight eyes. Perhaps it is just the reflection of the torchlight but somewhere in their darkness a red flame seems to burn. “I am my own cage.” She lifts her sword. “And I have opened the door.” 1 THERE ARE MANY poisons that will induce madness but none perhaps quite so effective as love. Sister Apple carried a hundred antidotes but she had drunk that particular draught of her own free will, knowing there was no cure.

Thorn and briar tore at her, the ice-wind howled, even the land opposed her with its steepness, with the long miles, the ground iron-hard. The Poisoner pressed on, worn, feeling each of her thirty years, her range-coat shredded in places, the tatters dancing to please the wind. When the deer-track broke from cover to cross a broad and rutted track Apple followed without hesitation, eyes on the ranks of trees resuming their march on the far side. “Stop!” A harsh cry close at hand. Apple ignored it. Kettle had summoned her. She knew the direction, the distance, and the pain. Kettle had called her. Kettle would never call her from her watch, not even if her life were in danger. But she had called.

“Stop!” More voices raised, the dialect sharp-angled and hard to attach meaning to. The treeline stood ten yards away across a ditch. Once she reached the shadows beneath the branches she would be safe. An arrow zipped past her. Apple glanced along the road. Five Durnishmen spanned the width, their quilted armour salt-stained and mudspattered, the iron plates sewn on shoulders and forearms brown with rust. Apple could reach the trees before the men caught her—but not before the next arrow or spear did. Cursing, she reached both hands into her coat pockets. Some of the obscenities she uttered had probably never been spoken by a nun before. Even the Durnishmen seemed surprised.

“Don’t kill me. I’m worth more to you alive.” Apple tried not to sound as if she were lecturing a class. She drew her hands out, a wax capsule of boneless in one, a wrap of grey mustard in the other, and a small white pill between finger and thumb. She popped the pill into her mouth, hoping it was bitterwill. She had all the antidotes ordered inside the many inner pockets of her habit, but reaching in to recover one would be asking to get shot, so she chanced to memory, feel, and luck, fishing in the outer pocket of her range-coat. “You . are nun?” The tallest of them took a pace forward, spear levelled. He was older than the other four. Weathered.

“Yes. A Holy Sister.” She swallowed the pill, grimacing. It tasted like bitterwill. The four younger raiders, all with the same dark and shaggy hair, tightened their grip on their weapons, muttering to pagan gods. Perhaps one nun in a hundred was anything other than a Holy Sister but with the stories told in Durn they couldn’t be blamed for thinking every woman in a habit was a Red Sister, or a Holy Witch just itching to blast them to smoking ruin. “A nun. From the convent.” “Convent.” The leader rolled the word around his mouth.

“Convent.” He spat it past frost-cracked lips. Apple nodded. She bit back on her desire to say, “With the big golden statue.” The men had to walk into the trap themselves. If they sensed her leading them she would be dead in moments. The leader glanced back at his men, gabbling out words that so nearly made sense. Durnish was like empire tongue put through a mincer and sprinkled with spice. She had the feeling that if they would just speak a little more slowly and change the emphasis it would all become comprehensible. Apple caught the two words that might keep her alive though.

“Convent” and “gold.” She broke the capsule of boneless in her fist and rubbed her fingers over her palm to spread the syrupy contents before wiping the hand over the back of her other and her wrist. “You. Take us to convent.” The man advanced another two paces gesturing with his spear for her to move. “I won’t!” Apple tried to sound scared rather than impatient. She thought of Kettle in danger, injured maybe, and fear entered her voice. “I can’t. It’s forbidden.” She had to get them close.

She couldn’t do much if they prodded her ahead of them at the point of a spear. She let her gaze flit between the faces of the men, offering a wavering defiance. A defiance that they might enjoy breaking. The leader motioned and two of his men advanced to grab Apple’s arms. A third kept his bow ready, half-drawn, arrow pointing her way, daring her to run. The last leaned on his spear, grinning vacantly. Apple feigned panic, raising her hands to intercept those that reached for her, but offering too little resistance to invite blows. One of the pair seemed to need no excuse and slapped her anyway, a hard, callused hand across the face. She spat blood and cried out for mercy. Both men were smeared with the clear boneless syrup now, sticky on their fingers.

The slapper twisted one arm behind her while the other made to open her coat, perhaps forgetting that the Ancestor’s brides take a vow of poverty. Knowing he would find her array of poisons and cures rather than any gold or silver Apple wailed piteously, raising her clenched fist to remind them she had something more obviously hidden. Slapper grunted incomprehensible syllables to Robber and the man abandoned the coat-ties to pry Apple’s hand open. In taking hold of it he got a second dose of boneless wiped across the palm of his hand. With the bitterwill to counter the poison Apple felt only a numbness where the syrup coated her, the strength in her arms untouched. Apple began crying out, keeping her fist clenched against Robber’s weakening efforts. Slapper tried to twist her into submission and it hurt like fire but she managed enough resistance to stop him breaking the arm behind her. At the same time Apple threw herself left then right, her progress always towards the leader and the archer though she never once glanced their way. The Durns’ hobnails slid on the mud. The remaining subordinates laughed uproariously at their comrades’ efforts, making no move to help.

The leader, snorting in disgust, motioned the archer forward then jammed his spear-butt into the mud and followed to intercept the group as they made a weaving approach. Neither Slapper nor Robber yet seemed to understand that they had been poisoned, presumably believing instead that Apple was an abnormally strong woman, perhaps drawing some animal strength from the depths of her terror. Apple wrenched her fist to her face as the officer reached them. She blew through her closed hand, a short sharp puff, and a cloud of powder from the crushed wrap bloomed around the man’s head. The edge of the cloud caught the archer just behind him. True terror loaned Apple the strength to throw herself backwards, falling from the Durns’ clutches to the rutted mud. She had seen what grey mustard could do and nothing in her array of antidotes would reduce the pain and disfigurement of it to an acceptable level. The officer’s screams shattered the air, the breath for his second cry sucking mustard spores into his lungs. The archer fell back, scratching at his eyes. Slapper and Robber staggered away, tripping and stumbling.

Which left Apple empty-handed, on the ground, with one able-bodied foe just yards away, spear in hand.


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