Empire of Jackals
Chrysathamere Trilogy Book 2
by Morgan Cole
The war with Tyrace is over.
It was supposed to be a time of celebration. Of triumph. But for Marilia Sandara, hero of Chrysathamere Pass, the cost was too high. After watching he childhood friends slaughtered before her eyes, all she wants to do is sail back to Svartennos and try to forget the price she had to pay for her victory.
But the peace isn’t long to last. After Emperor Vergana makes a shocking announcement—that he means to disinherit his true-born son, Rufyllys, in favor of his adopted child, Prince Ilruyn—the seeds are sown that will plunge Navessea back into war. This time, Marilia and her twin brother, Annuweth, find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict that threatens to undo all they fought for. By the time the dust settles and the killing stops, only one of the children of Karthtag-Kal may be left standing.
Annuweth lay on a bed in a Tyracian villa. The sheets smelled of dried sweat and the coppery stench of his own blood. It was a smell that not even the garden breeze through the window could hide.
Inside, his body raged, at war with itself. His lips were chapped, and he felt a dry heat racing through him like the fury of the desert winds. His mouth was thick and gritty as if choked with sand.
He felt much like he had all those years ago, when he’d lain weak and shivering after Tyrennis Castaval had tried to beat him to death. The fear crept in on him along with the darkness that always seemed to be gathering at the corners of his eyes, a darkness that might have been the beginning of sleep or the beginning of death. He was afraid that the darkness would claim him for good. He was afraid that even if it did not, he would not get better; afraid that his body was broken.
He needed his body; he wasn’t like his sister, whose greatest gift was her mind. His greatest gift was his sword hand. His speed, his strength. Without all of that...he wasn’t sure what he was.
Physicks came in and out. They pinched and poked and prodded and made the pain dance across his skin like a wicked child skipping across the cracks in a broken road. They peered at his chest, at his side, at his broken nose, at the gash across his face, and they forced water down his throat. They sewed him back together. That part made him weep with pain, though it shamed him. He wished he could gather the tears back into his eyes. He wished he could silence the sobs that racked his chest. Tears are the recourse of those who have no other weapon, Karthtag-Kal used to tell him. Women and children.
The physick crept away, leaving him alone in the dark. His only tether to the world of the living was the rippling, gaping pain that wrapped around him like a red scarf.
While he was awake, the pain held him and rocked him in its arms. When sleep finally came, his dreams were no relief.
He stood by the edge of a rushing river, the night around him darker than any he had ever seen. There were no stars in the sky, and a single sliver of pale moonlight made the ripples on the black water shine silver like the toothy grin of a razorfish.
Figures stood before him—the knights who had sailed with him and Livenneth in the Bay of Dane. The children of Oba’al’s pillow house who had been his friends. Where their eyes had been were smoking holes; grave beetles crawled from rotting gashes in their skulls. Annuweth tried to raise his sword to fend the monsters away, but then he realized that his sword was just a broken stick.
From out of their ranks stepped the Graver. He grew giant, tall enough to blot out the stars. He took Annuweth in his hands and crushed the life from him, squeezing until Annuweth’s bones came popping out through his skin.
Annuweth awoke with his mouth open, but his scream died soundlessly inside him.
The next day, Marilia came to him. Her blurred face hung over him like a half-finished silk tapestry distorted by the wind. She laid her hand on his brow and whispered to him that he would be all right, that she was sorry. So many things she whispered, on and on, until at last one of her men came to call her away.
He looked for sleep, but it would not come; it was stymied by the song that pounded through his head, over and over. A song he’d heard once as a child. The tiger lord of westerland stood gazing out to sea Golden clouds and golden sun, my lady’s gone from me No, he thought. Make it stop. By the gods, by the spirits, just let me rest. Her hair was black as midnight’s cloud, her eyes like living flame Now I wake weeping in the night; with tears I call her name A hundred men my spear laid low, I sent them to the pyres I turned their broken halls to ash, the brave sons and their sires
He closed his eyes. He drew one breath; another. That was all he could do—keep breathing. One in, one out. On and on and until his broken body mended itself and he found the strength to stand again.
She lit candles for him. He wanted to tell her to stop, that the smell was too strong, that he was choking on them. But he could not find his voice.
The smoke tickled his face and curled in his hair like the fingers of his long-ago mother. It wove shapes in the air.
How bright his future had seemed, when he’d first ascended the steps to Karthtag-Kal’s villa. How long ago it felt now. How far away. It was this place, this city that had left him hollowed, that had placed its shadowy hand upon him. A curse that began the day Tyrennis Castaval laid him low.
Annuweth had imagined at the time that his father’s spirit had saved him, that the prefect’s blood that flowed in his veins had given him the strength he needed to recover from the wounds caused by Castaval’s wooden sword. Nelos Dartimaos had saved him for another day, some other destiny that was waiting for him.
What if that destiny was only to die here in this room?
Again came the song, and he realized for the first time that it wasn’t only in his head—someone was singing it, someone outside his room. The men of Svartennos, many voices raised as one. The war was won, the battle done, the crown upon my hair While in my gardens children laugh, and women’s voices fair The western trees are tall and strong, the rivers bright and clear Yet none of them so dear to me as my Chrysathamere
The Lady Chrysathamere. His sister. Once again, she had risen, and he had fallen. Now she had taken the dream of his childhood—to defeat the Graver, to make things right and avenge his father’s death.
A new feeling flooded him. As hot as the fever, as fierce as the pain. His eyes opened; beneath the thin linens that covered his embattled body, his lungs swelled with a new, full breath. Fuck this city. Fuck curses. I’m going to live. I’m going to get better.
Let his sister have her moment in the sun. Let her enjoy it for all it was worth. He would lie here, and hurt, and weep, and piss himself if need be, if that was what it took.
But when it was all over, he would walk out of here, his sword at his side, to fight another day.
Because he was Annuweth Sandaros, son of Nelos Dartimaos.
And this was not the end of his story.
Marilia, The Warlord Chrysathamere Trilogy Book 1
Born the bastard daughter of a painted lady, Marilia was told she would live out her days within the walls of her mother’s brothel, a companion for the rich men of Tyrace. But after a terrible betrayal, Marilia’s world turns upside down. With the help of her twin brother, Annuweth, she flees the only home she’s ever known in search of the one man who can offer her a chance at a better life: one of her deceased father’s friends, the Emperor of Navessea’s greatest general.
What follows is a journey spanning years, from the streets of the desert city of Tyracium to the splendor of the emperor’s keep and the wind-swept, wild island of Svartennos. Along the way, Marilia discovers, for the first time, the gift she has for strategy and warfare—a world that is forbidden to girls like her.
When the empire is threatened by a foreign invasion, the defense of Navessea is left in the hands of a cruel and arrogant general no match for the empire's foes. With the fate of her new home and her family hanging in the balance, Marilia swears to use all her courage and cunning to help repel the enemy...if she can convince anyone to follow her.
The struggle that follows will test her to her core and lead her back to the past she thought she had escaped. Facing treachery within her own ranks as well as a devious enemy commander, Marilia will need all the help she can get, even if it means doing something her brother may never forgive—making a pact with the man who murdered her father.
Inspired by The Song of Achilles and Ender’s Game, Marilia, the Warlord is a blend of the epic and the personal, a story of war, romance, envy, the rivalry between brother and sister, and a young woman’s fight to find her place in the world.
“Please, help me. I don’t know what to do.” Marilia knelt on the floor of the tent, staring into the candle-flame. It was a blue candle, for clarity and wisdom. She needed some now, more than she ever had. “Father,” she begged. “I need your help now. Anything you can give. The Tyracian army is here, and if we don’t stop them…” her voice faded into silence. She couldn’t bring herself to speak the words out loud.
Come on, she urged herself. All those games of strategy you used to play…all those war-books you used to read…what good was any of it if it can’t save you now? But the spirits and gods felt far away. Though she stared into the light until her eyes watered, though she breathed in the smoke until it tickled her lungs and scratched the back of her throat raw, no clarity came. No wisdom. There was only fear. A dread that burned inside her with a heat far greater than any candle’s flame.
You’re going to die. You’re all going to die. She rose and made her way outside the tent. She listened to the sounds of the army—the rattle of armor, the cries of horses, the faint buzz of nearby voices. Considering she was surrounded by almost ten thousand men, it was remarkably quiet. The soldiers of Svartennos were subdued; they huddled close to their campfires, casting anxious gazes towards the south, where a smear of red like a bloodstain scarred the ashen face of the sky. The wind carried the smell of charred wood; a gray river of smoke rose from somewhere behind the southern hills and flowed upwards to join with the sea of gray clouds. Svartennos City was burning. Once it was gone, the Tyracian army would come for them. Her husband was dead. Her home was turning to ashes before her eyes.
What’s next? What will the Tyracians take? Maybe tomorrow they’ll march up this hill and kill your friends. Then they’ll sail to the rest of Navessea. Who knows how far they’ll get? How many they’ll kill? Your father? Your brother? The empire itself? At least you won’t be around to see it, except as a spirit. Because if they make it that far, you’ll probably already be dead. In the valley around her was an army of weary, heartsick, outnumbered men. If the great Emperor Urian was right, and hope was worth a thousand swords, then they were even more outnumbered than they looked, because after the sudden loss of their prince and their greatest city, the soldiers of Svartennos had run short of hope. In the command tent was a general who was no match for the enemy he faced. A man too proud to listen to reason, who had sent away his strategoi so that he could pace and fret alone, doing his best to convince himself—wrongly—that his strength, bluster and courage would be enough to save the day. There was a chance—a slim chance, but still there—that he might listen to her. But only if she had an idea worth listening to. In truth, she needed more than one idea—there was no way to know exactly what the Tyracians would do, so she had to be ready for several contingencies. And she had to be ready now--for all she knew, she might have only one chance to make herself heard. “Marilia.” She turned to see Camilline standing next to her. Her friend—her sister-by-marriage—put her hand on Marilia’s shoulder. “You look like you’re about to rip out your hair.” “I feel like I am. Camilline…I don’t know what to do. I can’t think.” “Just take a moment.” Camilline drew close, close enough that Marilia could feel her warmth. It was a greater comfort than the warmth of the candle had been. “Just breathe.” Marilia took a deep breath. She pictured herself standing in her father’s shrine, listening to the deep, soothing rumble of his voice as he ran her through the Stoics’ trance. Empty your mind. Find your center. She took another breath in and out.
This is just another game of Capture-the-Emperor, she told herself.
It’s not. These aren’t some pieces on a game board. They’re men’s lives. It’s not the same.
Then pretend it is. If it was, what would you do? Just sit back and let yourself lose?
No. Your father always called you stubborn, because you are. You’d fight to the last piece. You’d make sure that if you lost, you could sit back and comfort yourself with the knowledge that no one could have done any better.
You have to do this. You were meant to do this. “I thought there would be more time,” she muttered under her breath. The Tyracians would be there before the sun set again.
Well, there isn’t. Make do with the time you have. In a way, she had been preparing for this moment all her life. She thought back to all those little moments that had led her here, a long and dizzying path to this cliff’s edge. From those first, innocent games in her mother’s pillow house to those years in her father’s villa, to her marriage to Kanediel, lord of Svartennos—a union which had been so suddenly cut short. She’d watched him fall. She’d been helpless then. She wasn’t now. She closed her eyes, let the world around her fall away, let the noise of the camp fade to a distant murmur like a river. She forgot the taste of the smoke, the bite of fear in her chest. It was just her and the Tyracians, trapped in their game—the only game that mattered. Life or death. Winner take all. Somewhere far—but not too far—to the south, a war-horn echoed through the hills. They were coming.
After being bombarded with one too many school motivational posters, I decided to “shoot for the moon” by pursuing a risky double-major in creative writing and history on the assumption that the worst-case scenario would be landing among the stars. I instead landed in long-term unemployment—and unpaid internships, let’s not forget the unpaid internships—in small-town Ohio. Eventually, after several re-writes and two unhappy years, my first novel (not counting a couple of incredibly pretentious high fantasy books from my high school and college years that have all hopefully been hunted down and burned) was picked up by a literary agent—and then put back down when it was determined it was not marketable to a young adult audience.
Eventually, I began making more financially sound life choices and now work as an attorney in the public sector while continuing to write on the side.
What inspired you to write this book?
This may sound petty, but in all honesty, a lingering sense of disappointment over some of my favorite movies and TV series. I used to love the Star Wars prequels as a kid (to a somewhat unhealthy degree—I once had a Jedi braid halfway down my back), but as I grew older, I started to see that the tremendous potential of the story—former friends tragically turned against each other! The epic fall of a once-great nation due to treachery and political intrigue! Civil war with heroes on both sides! A secret, twisted romance!—wasn’t exactly done justice by a script that contained some pretty questionable dialogue choices (pro writing tip: never have a character respond to “you’re so beautiful” with “it’s because I’m so in love.” And definitely don’t follow that with “no, it’s because I’m so in love with you.”).
And then there was Game of Thrones, which I loved even before it was a hit TV show…but one aspect I didn’t love as much was how in the end everything came down to dragons burning CGI armies and cities in orgies of fire while the character development and grounded, gritty complexity kind of got sidelined. The Chrysathamere Trilogy was sort of my loose “remake” of those well-known series.
I also really love historical and “literary” fiction, just as much as fantasy, and I wanted to do a book that blended the genres. One of my aims was to some of the structural conventions of historical and literary fiction—which, often much more than fantasy, are able to explore the impact childhood has on adult characters by exploring those characters over a longer period of time—and combining them with the grand scope, the thrilling sword fights, the blood feuds and intrigue that drew me to the fantasy genre in the first place!
Do you have any “side stories” about the characters?
No. Or maybe, yes, but none I would ever show to anyone, because they’re trash. I did write a prequel-esque story in high-school about a duel between Marilia’s adoptive father and an evil warlord named Kanadrak, but being written in high-school, it’s not exactly my finest work. I feel like all the story that demands to be told is contained within the trilogy itself. Maybe someday, years down the line, I’d do a sequel (I got a few glimmers of inspiration from the history of the Borgias family!). But who knows…I like how the story ends, and if Hollywood has taught me anything, it’s that unnecessary 20-years-later type sequels can be a really bad idea if they’re not done right…
I’d rather work on my other novel (still deciding if it should be a series-starter or a standalone), which is about a disgraced queen’s bodyguard dealing with grief, a wayward young priestess with serious parent issues, and their journey together through a very weird heart of darkness. It’s sort of like The Last of Us meets the Princess Bride.
Can you tell us a little bit about the characters in the books?
I once read a brilliant article about the two types of strong female characters: the tough girl, and the tough girl “plus.” The tough girl is strong and independent and badass. She kicks ass, takes names, is always ready with a quip and a lethal combat move. She never really or cries, or has a breakdown, or needs to be saved, because I guess the fear is that would send some kind of sexist message that women can’t be strong.
The tough girl plus is strong, but in a different, more subtle way. She does have weaknesses, and flaws…often serious ones. As a character on Game of Thrones once said, the only time someone can be brave is when they are afraid. A strong character, to my mind, is one who overcomes a flaw or fear, not one who’s strong all the time. All my favorite heroes, male or female, fail, and weep, and have crises of faith, and sometimes need to get rescued by their friends From the get-go, it was very important to me not to have my protagonist be that first, under-developed kind of tough girl. She’s clever, and brave, but she’s not a badass, at least not as that term is traditionally understood, and she’s rarely ready with a wry quip. She’s first and foremost a struggling teenage girl doing the best she can in a new world.
In the book, Marilia challenges a lot of traditions and gender roles, and constantly strives for recognition, but it was very important that the reason for that fight weren’t that she believes in social justice and hates the patriarchy—it irks me deeply when characters in a story set centuries ago just happen to have moral values totally in line with those of a modern, liberal society (don’t get my started on all those historical Hollywood movies where all the feudal/ancient heroes are all about spreading that good old ‘Murican-style democracy!). I wanted to make sure the reasons Marilia became a warrior and challenged the society she was born in were deeply personal, and that her struggle was relatable to a modern reader while still feeling like her thoughts and feelings were appropriate for the time period (yes, I know it’s fantasy, but it’s definitely pseudo-Roman).
Besides Marilia, there’s a whole host of love-able and hate-able side characters. Since the first book is so Marilia-centric, a lot of them don’t fully come into their own until books 2 and 3. Karthtag-Kal, the stoic, honorable, samurai-like knight, with a closely hidden secret that informs every action he takes. Petrea, a femme fatale with a host of secrets of her own. The Graver, the ultimate social climber, constantly trying (and failing) to outrun his insecurities by becoming the best he can be at everything—top sword-fighter, brilliant general, second richest man in the empire! And Marilia’s twin brother, Annuweth, who, like Marilia herself, is deeply ambitious and filled with envy. In a way, he’s the mirror image of Marilia, showcasing a different side of toxic sexism. She suffers for being dismissed and overlooked because of her gender; he suffers under the weight of expectation that comes with being the sole surviving male heir of a mighty warrior.
How did you come up with the concept and characters for the book?
Quite a few places.
When I was a kid, I loved to play fantasy-esque games with my brother. I’d always wanted to recapture that childhood sense of adventure by writing some kind of epic fantasy novel, but I had a few rocky starts. Finally, after a few months of brainstorming, an idea began to take shape…
They say writers put a lot of themselves into their work, and I won’t lie…I certainly did so. There are aspects of myself in both Marilia and Annuweth, and in a couple of the side characters as well…and in the characters in my other books. Sometimes the best way to deal with a negative emotion—whether it be guilt, or anxiety, or alienation, or a feeling of powerlessness or inadequacy—can be to write about it.
Where did you come up with the names in the story?
That’s a whole story. A lot of the names used to be quite different. For a while, a lot of the side characters’ names were more Greco-Roman…that’s because some of the political intrigue in the series (especially in book 2!) was inspired by a Roman History class I took in college. I must have had the best professor ever, because, as a homework assignment, she had all the class play this mafia-style social media game where a bunch of undercover conspirators tried to assassinate the empire (by posting an assassination gif on his wall all at the same time) while a bunch of others, playing as the Praetorian Prefect and his guards, tried to figure out who the would-be assassins were and stop them. I’m proud to say that my character, Rufyllys, pulled off a smashingly successful coup.
My ex-literary agent pointed out that the names in my book were a little all over the place…some were Roman, some were Egyptian inspired, and a lot were inspired by a video game called Morrowind. To her mind, I ought to strive for consistency. It was a sensible suggestion, so I slowly went back and de-Romanized a lot of the names. Verginius “Rufyllys” Rufus became Rufyllys Vergana, Seneca became Senecal Ikaryn, Petreyus became Ilruyn…and so on and so forth. They’re now all a sort of Morrowind-Roman hybrid.
The only names that never changed at any point were those of Marilia, Annuweth, and Karthtag-Kal, who were not named after Roman characters in a role-playing game, but after childhood/teenage creations of mine (Karthtag-Kal was once an orc warrior in a role playing game!) Coming up with cool names is hard, and if I have one I like, I try to find a way to squeeze it into a book somewhere.
What did you enjoy most about writing this book?
When it was over and I could finally move on to books 2 and 3! Mostly because, at that point, I’d been writing and re-writing this book for so long that I thought I’d never have a draft I’d be satisfied with. The second and third books, while challenging at times, weren’t nearly the ordeal book 1 was (knock on wood, since I’m not 100% done with book 3 yet). I think, of the original 600-page draft of Marilia, the Warlord, maybe only about 300 words in the final novel are left…which is kind of insane. I basically re-wrote the book largely from scratch not once, but twice. While I think it was for the best, and I learned a lot from the process, I hope never to have to do anything like that again!
I also really liked the ending. I won’t spoil it, but it was one of the parts of the book I struggled with the most. Maybe because it was initially so problematic, it got a lot of extra attention devoted to it, and now it’s one of my favorite parts of the story. That feeling when all the thematic elements finally clicked into place was truly wonderful.
How did you come up with the title of your first novel?
I hate coming up with titles. I struggled so long to come up with something catchy. The literary agent I was working with, often so wise, kind of dropped the ball on this one. Her suggestion was The Painted Girl Who Won Her Freedom…which just wasn’t doing it for me. Too long, and too suggestive of a happy ending. Plus, for some reason, it makes me think of painted hyenas. Is it just me?
Finally, I settled on a title I was really happy with: Marilia, the Bastard. A bit gritty, a bit risqué, a bit mysterious. Is she a literal bastard, or also a metaphorical one, too? But of course, that wasn’t to be. Amazon considers the word “bastard” profanity, you see, and wouldn’t let me run any ads under that title! So, with mere hours to spare, and no photoshop skills to my name, I was left with a cover that said Marilia, the Bastard and the task of changing it to something inoffensive. In order to not have to do any font re-sizing, I couldn’t pick a word with more or fewer letters than Bastard…so I settled on Warlord. It was all I could think of, and involved only changing five letters.
If that isn’t the most banal, anticlimactic way to name a book, I don’t know what is.
If your book was made into a film, who would you like to play the lead and why?
A brand new actress! I mean, Marilia is pretty young, so I figure it would have to be someone new, right?
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I first knew I wanted to be a writer in high school. Back then, I hoped it would be my full-time job. Things didn’t exactly work out that way. For a while, since I had another career to pay the bills, I didn’t know whether I had earned the title of “writer.” But then I learned just how many writers have other jobs, and I felt less guilty about it. Now that I have two books out there and another two in good shape, I feel like I can comfortably call myself a writer without bringing down bad voodoo on my head or something.
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