I mentioned the other day how the first book in my fantasy science fiction series, Pearseus, is now titled Pearseus: Tyranny.
I am sharing today the opening chapter. While some authors advise against using a prologue, my advice is different: if you feel the book needs one, go ahead and use one. Just be careful with it. Their advice usually holds true because most people think that prologues are the perfect place for an info dump. If you can avoid that, then you’re good to go.
Prologues can be crucial if you want to have a slow start to your story. With most people rarely reading beyond the first few paragraphs, a high-octane introduction may be the only way to entice a reader. After all, if this technique is good enough for George R.R. Martin, it’s good enough for you.
So, does my introduction manage to entice readers to keep reading? You be the judge!
Augustine must die.
The realization hit Styx the same moment Justice Augustine, the woman Styx had sworn to protect with her life, raised the ceremonial goblet.
Augustine cleared her throat. Every sound in the room died. All eyes set on her, every man and woman still as statues. “To peace,” she cried out in a joyous voice.
Styx fixed her envious eyes on the crimson cup in Augustine’s hand. The unadorned matte surface showed it to be made of pure plastic—the most prized material on Pearseus and a clear symbol of the Justice’s power. It had once possessed the unique ability to warm up or cool down any liquid it held inside, although its batteries had been dead now for centuries. The few remaining fuel cells were reserved for the Capital’s handful of energy weapons.
Augustine surveyed the room, a hint of a smile playing on her thin lips. “Justice Barrett always said, justice without compassion is but tyranny. I have made it my life’s work to rule the Capital using her words as my guide. Compassion is the path to heaven, as the—”
A loud clang echoed through the room, interrupting her. A bearded man stared at his goblet, which had slipped from his fingers to spill its blood-red contents on the floor. His gaze jumped up to Augustine, his eyes wide with terror. “I’m … I’m so sorry,” he stammered. “Please, Your Honour. Forgive me.”
The room was so quiet that Styx thought for a moment she had gone deaf.
Augustine’s brow furrowed. She touched the crystal hanging from her neck. It lit up, recording her verdict.
Realizing he was being judged, the clumsy man took a step backwards. He slipped on the spilt wine and landed on his back with a loud thump. “Mercy,” he whimpered.
Augustine made an almost imperceptible nod. Two Guardians, her personal guards, took one step forward and snapped to attention. They slammed their energy lances on the floor with a startling bang that echoed through the hall. The weapons’ tips crackled up in bright flames. A moment later, they became steady blades of fire. The ominous hum from the energy lances echoed in the hushed room like an irate wasp looking for a target for her burning sting.
“Cut his hand off,” Augustine said in a soft voice. “Looks like it’s pretty useless, anyway.”
“No, Your Honour,” the man cried out as the Guardians dragged him outside. “Please!”
Augustine turned off the crystal, waiting for the man’s screams to die out. “Now, where was I?”
Styx hurried to her side. “Compassion,” she whispered. “The path to heaven.”
“Ah, yes,” Augustine said, dismissing her with a curt nod. “Compassion. The path to heaven. It is this compassion which guided the negotiations. Our will to share this planet with the Loyalists, putting war once and for all behind us…”
Styx waited patiently until the long speech extoling the virtue of compassion was finally over.
Augustine gave the sign for the festivities to resume. Servants darted around. Forks clanged. Men and women chatted with each other, their faces flush with wine. Most were holding a plate in one hand, a silver cup in the other.
Styx felt Augustine’s prying gaze fall on her. Beaming her ruler a warm smile, she lifted her gem-studded gold cup in silent toast. May I soon be the one holding the Capital’s fate in my hands. Her gaze still locked with the Justice’s, Styx took a sip. Her wine tasted as bitter as their supposed victory. A victory that condemned the Capital to further war in a few years’ time. Resisting the temptation to spit, she plonked her heavy cup on one of the many small tables dotting the spacious hall.
A woman’s nasal laughter cracked behind her, making Styx cringe. She wanted out of there, but her absence would be frowned upon. Mistakes like this were easy to make and hard to undo.
Shoving her hands into her pockets, Styx glanced around. Her eye caught on a handsome Major, half-hidden behind a wide column. Parad. His uniform showed him to be one of the many Captains Augustine had promoted and medalled earlier, in a public ceremony designed to please the throng of idiots that called themselves the Capital’s subjects.
Styx expected the man to be beaming with pride, but under his cropped hair his face was taut, his smart eyes resigned. Did he, too, understand they had squandered their best chance in a century?
Parad put a small piece of buttered carrot in his mouth in a slow, calculated movement, then patted his mouth carefully with his napkin.
Not someone who likes to lose control. A half-smile tugged at Styx’s lips. Someone like me, then.
A woman approached Parad, holding by the hand a handsome boy with olive skin and endearing, almond-shaped eyes, no more than five years of age. The boy’s short, charcoal hair showed off his thin, triangular face, making it clear this was Parad’s son, Cyrus. He would become taller than his father, Styx guessed, although Parad’s straight posture, typical for career soldiers, made him appear taller than he really was.
The man’s face brightened when he saw his family and his mouth broke into a warm grin. The boy rushed to him and wrapped his arms around Parad’s leg, then swung around and leaned against it. He spread his own, thin legs and crossed his arms, like a bodyguard challenging anyone foolish enough to disturb their family’s bliss. Parad tousled his son’s hair, then rested his hand on Cyrus’s shoulder.
The boy raised his eyes to her, as if sensing her prying stare. His gaze locked on to hers.
She expected him to lower his eyes as soon as they met her gaze. Instead, he studied her, an amused smile flickering on his lips.
Such insolence! As she prepared to stare him down, a sharp pain stabbed her gut, like a piercing arrow. Her heart beat louder. Droplets of sweat trickled down her back. The room spun and darkened. The only thing she could see was the boy’s penetrating eyes. What is happening to me? She opened her mouth to scream but no sound came out.
Augustine cleared her throat loudly enough to startle Styx back into the present.
Styx rushed to the Justice’s side on trembling legs. “Will you be needing me, Your Honour?” Her voice sounded hoarse.
“I will be retiring now,” the woman announced with a dismissive wave of her hand. “You stay. Enjoy yourselves.”
“Thank you, Your Honour.” Styx bowed deeply, along with everyone else in the room.
As soon as Augustine disappeared behind a dark curtain, the doors to the kitchen flung open and a new string of servants burst into the room, each carrying a heavy silver tray spilling over with delicious treats. Instead of enticing Styx, the mouth-watering smells that wafted into the hall turned her stomach. Her gaze searched for Cyrus but he was nowhere to be seen.
Styx pushed the doors to the corridor open and fled the hall, unable to stand those idiots for another moment. She should have stayed to overlook the festivities, she knew, but her bedroom beckoned her like a pleasant dream’s warm embrace. She needed to consult with her advisor. He had to help her.
She marched down empty corridors, the banquet’s cacophony dying away with each step, until she reached her room.
“Where are you?” she muttered under her breath as soon as she slammed the door shut behind her. Darkness engulfed her, adding to the welcome sense of isolation.
For a split second she sensed more than heard a low-pitched hum. She winced at the sudden throbbing in her head. The little remaining light in the room disappeared altogether, a vaguely humanoid hole of blackness swallowing it. It emerged from the shadows in the far corner of the room, emanating a mixture of dread and comfort. No face could be discerned and its proportions were all wrong for a human. The arms were thin and so long they almost touched the ground, much like a tree’s branches. Shadowy, ethereal fingers formed and disappeared at the ends of the elongated limbs. Styx briefly tried to count them but soon gave up, as old ones vanished and smoky new ones appeared in their place. The only feature on its head was two fiery, mesmerizing eyes, while the rest of the creature could be more felt than seen, as if it were part real, part imagined.
A whisper, barely audible, filled the room, like leaves rustling in the wind. “I heard your call,” it said, as if in answer to her question.
“Thank you.” She paced the room, ignoring the hammers banging against her temples. “I need your help.” She stopped herself a moment before revealing her strange experience with Cyrus. Could she afford to display weakness? Could the creature be trusted?
The creature’s first visit flashed in her head. She had been but a child, hiding under her bed to avoid the insults of an abusive, drunken mother. She had never known her father and the fact that she, a nobody, had become Justice Augustine’s personal aide, a position coveted by the most powerful families on Pearseus, spoke volumes about the creature’s uncanny ability to sniff out opportunities—and weaknesses.
“It’s… It’s Augustine,” she continued. “She will ruin everything.”
Her heart beat faster. “Yes, what? Yes, you’ll help me?”
Burning, crimson eyes studied her. What is it thinking? She licked her dry lips. Maybe it’s just nerves, anyway. Nerves because of this idiotic treaty. “Yesterday, Justice Augustine signed a peace treaty with the Loyalists. She thinks she’s saved us. That she’s brought us peace.” With some effort, Styx pushed away Cyrus from her mind and focused on the more pressing matter. “People are calling it the Peace of the Eclipse, thinking yesterday’s eclipse was an auspicious omen. I think we should have got rid of the Loyalists once and for all. Those bastards only opted for peace because they have their backs against the wall. All they understand is fear and power. They’ll now lick their wounds and attack again at their leisure. It may take them a few months or a few years, but attack they will.”
“Yes,” the whisper repeated. The creature stirred as if bored.
Styx ground her teeth. “She committed treason. A crime punishable by death.”
The eyes half-closed for a moment, as if the creature was thinking. “You plead for my justice.”
“Yes.” She reached to the nightstand and filled a plain clay cup with water from a jug in measured movements. Her steady hand hid the thumping in her chest. “Will you help me?”
Her heart skipped a beat. For a moment she thought she had misheard. She took a sip, her eyes studying the creature. Every gift has a price, she reminded herself. “And in return?”
A hushed cackle made of screaming whispers filled the air, causing a chilly shiver to shoot down her spine. “You kill Cyrus.”
Her breath caught. What did it know? How could it know? “Parad’s son? Why?” Her eyes narrowed. Her mind fervently searched for a trap. “You serve Themis, Goddess of justice. Has the boy done some wrong? Has his father?”
“If I do that, I’ll die, too.” She had no idea where the words in her mouth came from.
The eerie cackle stopped as abruptly as it had started. The red eyes faded, as if she had only imagined them.
“Wait,” she hissed. Her head spun. “Wait!”
She pressed the base of her palms against her temples. As a Justice, you can serve the Capital; save it from Augustine, a voice whispered in her head. You can defeat the Loyalists; end the war once and for all. And Cyrus may well be a real threat. As if in response, her body throbbed where the imaginary arrows had pierced it mere minutes ago.
Her palm rubbed her stomach as her eyes scanned the room. Her heart almost stopped when she failed to see the creature. Have I wasted my chance? “I’ll do it,” she shouted at the empty walls.
The burning eyes materialized right in front of her.
She jolted back in alarm and swallowed, hard. “Does it have to be now?”
“No,” the voice whispered. “Soon.” Its tendrils caressed the nightstand leisurely, almost lovingly. “Find it. Slip it in Augustine’s wine. I’ll take care of the rest … Your Honour.”
Your Honour! The words made her wince. Then she frowned. Find what? She pried the drawer open. Inside, someone had placed a round red pill, the colour of the creature’s eyes. It seemed full of promises as she picked it up and examined it in the low light, rubbing her fingers against its smooth surface. She raised her eyes back to the creature, but found herself alone in the room. Your Honour!