Holy Sister – Mark Lawrence

For those of you who have had to wait a while for this book I provide brief catch-up notes 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. The people and places in the brief summary I start with are expanded on further down, so if it means nothing to you, skip the next paragraph then come back to it. Grey Sister ended with Nona, around fifteen years old, escaping Sherzal’s palace with troops in pursuit. She had friends with her, including Zole, Ara, Regol, Abbess Glass and Sister Kettle, and assorted other survivors. Zole had the Noi-Guin’s shipheart, stolen from the assassins’ headquarters beneath the palace. Clera helped Nona escape but went back to Sherzal’s service. Nona’s enemy from the convent, the novice Joeli Namsis, was still in the palace and her actions led to the death of Nona’s friend Darla during the escape. Nona and her companions are in the mountains on the border with Scithrowl and a long way from the convent. The story does not begin with this scene but will return to it presently. 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 called 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 Grey Sister Scithrowl hordes under their Battle-Queen, Adoma, were amassing on their side of the mountain range that borders the battle lines. The emperor’s sister, Sherzal, commands the defence against Scithrowl from her palace in the mountains. She was going to betray the empire and let Queen Adoma’s forces through the Grand Pass. The deal included combining the shipheart held by the Noi-Guin assassins and the shipheart stolen from Sweet Mercy Convent by the ice-triber Yisht, with the two shiphearts Queen Adoma has, thereby making the quartet of shiphearts believed necessary to open the Ark. The Ark lies beneath the emperor’s palace and was built either by the Missing or the first humans and is said to allow control of the moon. Shiphearts are objects of disputed origin that may have powered the ships that brought the tribes of men to Abeth. The closer a person gets to one the more enhanced their natural talent for magic is. Get too close, though, and the shipheart’s power begins to break your mind apart. Undesirable pieces of your personality like anger or greed or malice split into sentient fragments called devils and exert greater influence over you.

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 names 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 Missing left behind structures called Arks. Three exist within the Corridor. The emperor’s palace is built on 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. Others believe that four shiphearts used together can open an Ark. Nona Grey was 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. She 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 of taking a dangerous antidote. She has no shadow, having cut it free while 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 Lano Tacsis because she killed his brother and also left his father, Lord Thuran Tacsis, bound to his own torture device. Joeli Namsis is the daughter of a lord with close ties to the Tacsis family. She is skilled at quantal thread-work and poisoning. She became Nona’s enemy at the convent.

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, Zole, Ruli, and Jula. Arabella Jotsis is from a powerful family and a rare two-blood, having both hunska and quantal skills. 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 has been led by Abbess Glass, a woman whose connections in the Church and beyond reach further than expected. Most senior among the nuns are the Sisters Superior, 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. Grey Sister ended with Nona in Mystic Class.

Novices take new names when they become nuns. Nona will become Sister Cage. Ara will be Sister Thorn. Prologue The roar of a crowd invades you like a living thing, reverberating in your chest, taking its answer from your lips without permission. The press of bodies overwhelms barriers and unknowingly the many become something singular, the same emotion bleeding from the skins of different people, the same thought echoing in a hundred skulls, or a thousand. For a marjal empath it can be a thing at once both terrifying and glorious, expanding their control, making it easier to reach into the minds around them, but also allowing the possibility that in such a storm of humanity they may lose themselves, may be lifted out of their flesh, never to find it again. Markus watched the defeated fighter being helped from the ring beneath the jeers and complaint of the crowd. The victor still stalked the perimeter of his raised battleground, arms lifted, sweat running down his ribs. But already the crowd were losing interest in him, turning to their neighbours with speculation, observation, or jest, turning to the odds-mongers to lay new wagers, turning to the counter in the far corner to fill their cups with wine. And some, seeking new thrills, now faced the second ring at the far end of the hall.

The gerant fighter waiting behind the ropes threatened nine foot in height and Markus didn’t believe that he had seen a larger man. The fighter was still young, in his early twenties perhaps, and his muscles crowded along his bones, the battle for space heaping them up in great, veined mounds. He watched the world from pale eyes beneath a thicket of short red hair. At the Caltess the gerant contests were the most popular. The sight of enormous fighters pitting their strength against each other never failed to draw the masses, and on nights with an open ring the folk of Verity loved to see that strength turned upon hapless challengers. Bouts between hunska ringfighters had a strong following among the more experienced watchers but the speed of the combatants often left the common crowd bewildered. Mixed matches were a rarity but the contest of speed against strength was always interesting. From the baying press of humanity around the base of the giant’s ring a challenger emerged. A powerfully built man who stood head and shoulders above those pressing him on all sides. In normal circumstances Markus would have been impressed by the fellow’s physique and backed him against any three bar-room brawlers.

An undercurrent of whispers and speculation flowed around the hall. The man was a refugee from the port of Ren, which now lay within the Durnish incursion. He had some reputation from pit-fights in the frost towns along the north margins. ‘Five says he doesn’t last the round against Denam.’ Someone behind Markus seeking a private wager. The roar as the newcomer climbed into the ring drowned out further conversation. Markus hadn’t ever been inside the great hall of the Caltess, though years ago he had spent hours waiting in the compound with the other children from Giljohn’s cage. The child-taker had never intended to sell Markus to Partnis Reeve though. He’d suspected Markus of marjal blood and had taken him on to be offered where such talents would fetch a richer price. The great hall had stood silent and dark on that midnight long ago, and as the night had shaded into morning young Markus had shivered and clutched himself and never suspected that he would one day stand within, part of a sweating, heaving mass baying for blood.

Even though it was Markus’s first time before the rings he knew Denam’s name. Despite his tender years the young man was the new champion among the gerant ring-fighters, famed for his brutality. For Denam open-ring night often proved to involve nothing more than glowering at the sea of resentful faces before him. Finding no one to answer his challenge he would cede his place to another fighter and once more the crowd would discover its courage. ‘Milos of Ren!’ the fight-master called out. Milos raised his arm in acknowledgement and walked to his corner to await the bell. Markus didn’t hear the chime above the roar but the two men closed, Milos dwarfed by Denam. The gerant full-blood kept his hands down and let Milos take a punch. It was as if he had swung at a tree. Denam’s head moved slightly to the left with the blow.

Milos clubbed him two-handed across the other side of his face and Denam’s head lurched to the right. Denam returned his gaze to his opponent and grinned, his teeth bloody. Milos didn’t appear to understand. He looked down at his fists as if there might be something wrong with them. Denam slapped the man, brushing his arms away. Blood sprayed from Milos’s mouth and he staggered as if drunk. Denam caught him in two great hands, one wrapped around his neck, the other encompassing his thigh, and lifted him four yards above the boards before slamming him down, fullbodied, face first. Milos did not rise. An apprentice scrambled in to scatter sand across the crimson smear left behind when they dragged him out beneath the lowest rope. Markus wasn’t alone in thinking that Denam was finished for the night, but the flow of the crowd indicated another challenger coming to the fore.

The newcomer appeared, climbing clear of the throng. From behind, Markus saw only a dark cloak and black hair. This challenger stood even shorter than Milos, little more than six foot and of considerably lighter build. The audience hushed in surprise. ‘Hunska?’ the whisper went round. ‘Fool!’ came the reply. The challenger might not be a giant but even so hunskas were never this tall or broad-shouldered. Denam fixed the newcomer with a stare so murderous that Markus felt the need to run boiling up inside him. As an empath he was used to swimming in the currents of others’ emotions but the ringfighter’s anger ran swifter and more deep than anything he’d felt before and at each moment threatened to overwhelm his senses. The challenger ducked beneath the top rope.

‘Drunk,’ someone speculated. Markus tried to imagine how drunk a person would have to be to think this a good idea. Too drunk to stand, probably. This one didn’t move as if inebriated though. The hush fell to silence as the challenger’s cloak fluttered from the ring. The woman wore the same as the ring-fighters, just a white loin-cloth and a white band of cloth bound tight around her chest, her pale skin accentuating the redness of Denam’s complexion. The fight-master didn’t approach to learn the challenger’s name. Instead he raised his voice, ‘Nona of the convent.’ Nona didn’t lift her arm to acknowledge the crowd’s roar but she did make a slow turn, and when the black orbs of her eyes swept across him Markus knew that he had been seen. ‘Fight!’ Denam came slowly to meet the novice, fists raised to protect his throat and eyes, his stance closed to defend his groin.

Markus watched Nona intently, trying to see anything of the girl he’d known over those weeks in Giljohn’s cage. She was two years his junior so she would be around seventeen, but she looked every inch a woman. Long-limbed, lean, an athlete’s body, each muscle chiselled in hard relief, flat belly above the jut of her hipbones. Even frightened for her as he was, Markus couldn’t deny she drew his eye in ways unbecoming to a Holy Brother. Nona stepped in with a swift confidence, striking Denam just below the ribs on his left side, five or six blows landing with the rapidity of a woodpecker hammering at a tree. She punched with her whole body, swivelling at the waist. Denam laughed the blows off and swept a hand at the novice. She evaded him with ease, landing three or four more punches in the same spot. Hard as she must be hitting the man, Markus couldn’t see what hope Nona had of victory. The muscle covering Denam’s bones lay inches thick and the bones beneath must be like those of a draught horse.

She might as well try to punch a bear into submission. Denam squared up against Nona, his hatred for her obvious even as he tried to laugh at her efforts. Nona stood her ground and the crowd drew in its breath. Denam swung with an arm that looked as thick around as Markus’s chest. The fist he drove at Nona was the size of her skull. She took the punch in the face, her head snapping to the right. The follow-up came from the left, snapping her head back the other way. Markus imagined those fists would shatter a skull, leave cheekbones in fragments, break a neck …

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