As the whole of the Duellist Trilogy will be available on Amazon from 18th February, this is a sample chapter from Hal.
I’m trying to decide whether or not to do an author reading of this chapter. If I finally take the plunge, I’ll link it to the blog.
“Was this the book you requested, Miss Léac?”
The librarian craned down at Meracad from his ladder, swaying beneath the dusty weight of a leather-bound volume. Standing on tiptoes, she studied the engraving on its spine: The Imperial Chronicles, Volume Two.
“Yes. That’s it. Thank you.”
He staggered down the rungs, laying it with reverence upon the reading desk. “Are you certain that you wish to read this?” Grey-flecked eyebrows shot up above a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles.
“And why not?” Her voice echoed around the silent, empty vault of the reading room.
“It is not common reading matter for young ladies, Miss Léac.”
“And who would it be common reading matter for, then?” Try as she might, she could not quite keep the defensive note out of her voice.
He shrugged. “Senators, courtiers…”
“I wish to know how my ancestors lived, Sir. How our empire came into being…why Colvé was built.”
The librarian raised a bony, nervous hand to his thinning hair, patting down a few loose strands. “Of course, Miss Léac. An admirable pursuit, if I might say so. Now I really must be…” he gazed around absently as if he had forgotten what he ought to be doing. “I must get back to my work.”
She sat down and began to leaf through The Chronicles, inhaling the delicate, woody scent of ancient parchment. She disturbed him: she could see it in his milky, half-seeing eyes. Every time she entered the library he studied her, followed her, interrogated her with stammering questions about her choice of reading material. Would she not, perhaps, prefer some courtly romance? That was what the young ladies craved these days. Or Mistress Egré’s latest guide to etiquette. He was not, after all, certain that Master Léac would approve of her choice of books.
Meracad stifled a sigh, pressing down a time-stained page to reveal a fresh chapter in the empire’s glorious history. Would he pass on details of her reading habits to her father, she wondered? Would she now find herself forbidden to enter the library? Colvé was a maze. She ran along its avenues, only to find them sealed.
“I thought it was you.” The voice pulled her from a world of battles and sieges and back into the cool, musty reality of the library. Frowning, she raised her head and stared at Hal Thæc who had planted herself on the opposite side of the desk.
“I’m sorry,” Meracad said, her fingers fidgeting with the edges of the parchment. “I didn’t see you.”
Hal Thæc offered her a lop-sided grin in response. “Must be a good book.”
“It is – The Imperial Chronicles.”
“The Chronicles?” Hal feigned a yawn. “They made us read some of those when I was a ward.”
“You didn’t enjoy them, I take it?”
“Well I wouldn’t read them out of choice.”
Meracad closed the book, running her fingers along the impressions upon its spine. “So if you’re not fond of reading, what are you doing in a library?”
Folding her hands behind her head, Hal leant against the backrest of the chair. “It’s cool in here.” Her blue eyes danced with irony. “And it’s hot out there.”
Meracad smiled in spite of herself. The duellist appeared calmer, less frantic than she had done a few days before at Remigius’s party. Cropped, coal-black hair threw the paleness of her skin into relief. Her long-limbed, wiry frame was wrapped in leather vest and trousers.
“The public baths are the place to cool off, I believe,” Meracad said.
“I’ve tried them. They’re full of courtiers.”
“Oh yes. I’d heard you had an aversion to courtiers.”
Hal leant forward, her bare arms forming a frame upon which to rest her chin. “Really? Who told you that?”
The conversation was already sliding into treacherous terrain. Meracad shrugged. “I thought it was common knowledge. You left the court because you couldn’t stand it.”
“I left the court in order to duel.”
The librarian limped forward, hobnails clipping on the polished marble of the floor. Hal raised her head, acknowledging him, Meracad noticed, with a provocative grin.
“Mistress Thæc,” the old man began, “you seem to be making a habit of turning the library into your own private forum.”
“I was sharing my appreciation of The Chronicles with Miss Léac,” she replied, her voice low and lazy.
“Miss Léac’s devotion to the library is admirable. She comes here to read!”
“Miss Léac is to be admired, I agree.”
The librarian turned on his heel and stamped away, fuming. Meracad grew uncomfortably aware of the blush which now worked its way up her neck, and of Hal’s steady gaze.
The duellist leant forward as if conspiring against the librarian. “Why do you love to read so much?” She asked, tapping a finger upon the cover of The Chronicles. Meracad smiled, sensing that the conversation was back on safer ground.
“To take myself beyond this cess-pit of a city.”
The duellist’s eyes rounded in surprise. “You hate it so much?”
Meracad felt her pulse quicken. No one, she had learnt, was to be trusted ─ not maids, dancing tutors, librarians, servants. Not senators, courtiers or her father’s fellow merchants. Gossip ran rife as plague around the city. A single word whispered in a moment of forgetfulness would work its way back to her father’s house. So why did she now find herself so desperate to reveal it all ─ all the misery and frustration ─ to this strange woman?
“Don’t all prisoners hate their cells?” The words slipped out as if on their own accord. And once out, they couldn’t be unsaid.
Hal’s sharp features softened, the easy smile dropped from her face, she ran her fingers through her hair. “Your prison is in here, Meracad.” She put her fingertips to her temples. “Within, not without.”
“Easy for you to say.”
“Why easy? We live in the same city, don’t we? We’re bound by the same rules.”
“Not you. You’re of noble birth. Your privileges are assumed ─ were assumed until you left court. My father clawed his way up to wealth and position. He expects my appreciation ─ he demands my respect.”
The smile returned to Hal’s lips. She stretched with fluid grace. “So you’ll simply do as you’re told then? Lie to yourself that these books offer you freedom, however fake that freedom really is? You’ll marry who you’re told to marry and move from one prison to the next?”
“It might get better.”
The librarian was hurrying towards them again, huffing and snorting like a small, irate dragon.
“Miss Thæc, I must ask you to leave! This is a library, not a public house.”
“Well I’m certain Miss Léac would never find herself in a public house,” Hal drawled.
Meracad glared at her, resenting the jibe, wishing Hal gone and at the same time willing her to stay.
Hal rose but kept both hands flat on the desk as she stared down at the merchant’s daughter, her eyes flecked with a cool arrogance. The librarian put a hand to her arm, guiding her away.
“I don’t expect to see you in here soon, Miss Thæc.”
“I don’t expect to return. But if Miss Léac wishes to discuss the empire’s history with me some more, she knows where to find me.”
“Why would I want to find you?” Meracad called out to Hal’s departing back.
The duellist turned round and shrugged. “I have no idea.”
The doors opened, rays of sun channelling through the library’s dusty haze, and for a moment Meracad saw Hal’s sleek form silhouetted against the light. Then the doors slammed shut and all was silence.
“My apologies, Miss Léac.” The librarian bustled forward once more, smoothing his hands down his apron as if to wipe them clean. “The woman knows no bounds, it would seem.”
“No, Sir. She doesn’t,” murmured Meracad, gnawing on a nail. A sudden wave of disappointment descended upon her, like clouds cancelling out a sunny day. The Imperial Chronicles no longer seemed a haven of romance and adventure to which she might escape. Grimacing, she pushed the volume back towards the librarian. “My father will be expecting me. I had better go.”
“Should I keep the book for your return?” His gaze was, she felt, just a little too intrusive.
“No, Sir. That won’t be necessary.”
Meracad threaded her way between the reading desks, eager to escape the suffocating gloom of the library. What had appeared a place of refuge now seemed just one more closed avenue of the maze, an illusion of freedom. Pushing open the door she lost herself amongst the dizzying play of courtiers, merchants, street-hawkers, of children, senators and thieves, the heat so intense it carried almost solid weight. She peered up and down the street but the duellist had disappeared. Biting her lip, Meracad set off in the direction of home, confused and alone