The First Fight Chapter Two: Excerpt

Sooner or later, Halanya, you’ll fall so far that my spies will make no difference. The city itself will turn against you. 

As mentioned last week, I started posting my short story “Hal: The First Fight” in full on Wattpad as it will – eventually – have some steamier scenes in it which probably wouldn’t be appropriate on my blog. Here’s an excerpt from today’s chapter and a link following it if you’d like to read the whole thing:

the first fight

Heat now baked the streets of Colvé and the city stirred like a restless, angry dog, ready to snap at her heels as she plunged down the hill from the palace and back towards the duelling academy, aware that she’d promised Beric to be back by noon. But the main square was a heaving, confused mass of people and passing amongst them was like swimming against a tide. Hal squeezed through the crowds, her hand to her belt, aware now more than ever before of the hidden threats of cutpurses and thieves.

“Hal?”

Her blood quickened at the call of her own name, and she turned in surprise. “Orla!”

The soldier was sitting by the fountains which looped and cascaded at the heart of the square. Hal bent to drink, splashing her face with cool water, ridding the palace from her skin and hair. She rose, aware of Orla’s gaze, and of Cara’s words which still reverberated through her head. Unnatural. Freakish. Was that how others saw her?

“You look tired duellist,” Orla said at last.

Hal bit her lip. “I’m alright.”

There was no trace of that arrogant air which Orla had carried at The Emperor, but her eyes betrayed a bitter, desperate hunger which stirred something in Hal: a curious fusion of desire and fear. The soldier put an arm to Hal’s shoulder. “Perhaps you’d care to continue your exploration of Riverside?”

Orla’s touch was like the first heavy fall of rain in a summer storm. Hal sucked in her breath. “I have to practice, Orla. I promised my duelling master…”

The hunger vanished and Orla’s lips sealed into a hard sneer. “Well if you must, you must.”

“It’s not…it’s not that I don’t want to.”

“Run along, now Hal. Back to the academy. Back to the Circle. Or perhaps the palace?” Orla’s voice cut like a blade. “Anywhere you feel safe.”

She recalled her encounter with they spy. “Nowhere is safe, Orla.”

Hal tore away from the fountains, pushing on again through the crowds back to Beric’s insults, back to the hard, bare boards of the academy and the ring of steel. She would close the door, she would pick up her sword and fight. And Colvé would vanish from sight for a few more hours.  

Full Chapter: https://www.wattpad.com/565995741-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story-chapter-two

 

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Interview: Lesfic Reading Group, Facebook

One of the great things about social media is the way it has brought authors and readers together like never before. I experienced this first hand on Saturday when I got the chance to participate in an online author interview hosted by K’Anne Meinel of the lesfic reading group on Facebook. You can find the group here at: 

https://www.facebook.com/groups/lesficbooks/.

As this is a closed group only members were able to participate, but K’Anne very kindly agreed to my posting some of the questions and my responses on my blog.

I should point out that this was not a typical interview. Over a two hour period, other members of the group asked me questions about my books, writing and related subjects. My responses were therefore sometimes a bit rushed and there may be a few typos here and there. I have slightly altered one or two responses for purposes of clarification.

The experience was great – in spite of being anxious to begin with, it became a really fun Q&A session. The group is a friendly, safe space to discuss lesfic and I  really recommend it. 

How did the genesis for The Duelist Trilogy come about?

Aw I knew this question was going to come up…so you’re all probably going to think I’m a bit freaky – which is true – but I seemed to have been carrying the idea for the main character, Hal, around in my head for ever. And I had no idea that she was going to turn into a book. But one day, just to almost exorcise her, I sat down and started writing her story and an entire book came out of it. The problem with Hal is that the more I write, the more she seems to come back. I keep thinking, that’s it. I’ve reached peak Hal, but no…another story pops out at me

No outline? Just sat in front of your computer and wrote the book?

Kind of. It surprised me to be honest! It is a bit of a patchy way to write because you forget things as you’re going and then you’re like damn! I need to go back and change things now. But for some reason it just worked and I can’t explain it to this day.

After working with Hal and your Duelist Trilogy, how weird was it to go to The Firefarer and start another? Will this too be a trilogy?

Yeah really weird. I decided that I had to do something different because I didn’t want to be a kind of one trick pony. I felt that I wanted to challenge myself by writing something that was more complicated in terms of narrative structure, world building, characterisation etc. So I forced myself and this time I had to do some real planning and…it hurt! But I’m glad I went for it and yes, this will be another trilogy. I’m writing part two – The Fresco and the Fountain at the moment.

What made you decide to go with Firebound instead of self-publishing or a bigger publisher?

So I knew this one would come up too, and it’s quite a long story. But basically, I wrote Hal or most of it and then stuffed it in a drawer and tried to forget about it. I wasn’t that bothered about publishing it – I just wanted it out of my system and I really didn’t want to go down the route of trad publishing because…well you know. All the rejection letters etc. But then I decided that I might as well share it online, so I posted it on the online writing platform Wattpad and it got quite a lot of views and was eventually featured. That was when fellow Wattpad author Rob May stepped in – we were critiquing each other’s work and he already had the idea of starting the imprint Firebound on Amazon so he asked me if I’d like to try publishing too. I thought, what the hell. Might as well. Now I’m pretty glad I did.

Why lesbian fiction? Mainstream fiction makes a lot more money…

that is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The story was just…lesfic. I never thought about money. I just had a story to tell and I wanted to get it out there. Really, writing lesfic gives me the opportunity to think about my own sexuality. To explore it. It’s perhaps self-indulgent but I can’t imagine writing anything else.

Who is your favorite lesfic author? Who do you read? Who is your favorite ‘mainstream’ author? What do you read? What’s in YOUR Kindle/e-reader?

So I got into lesfic by reading Sarah Waters who is both mainstream and a fantastic writer of lesbian historical fiction – and I think that, having read a lot of comments from group members in the past, Waters was also one of many people’s first encounters with lesfic. I mean she is amazing – in terms of the complexity of her work, the twists she throws in, the compassion she has for her characters. Absolutely love it.

I’ve discovered loads of new authors from this group and the lesbian review website, however – people like Jae and Heather Rose Jones who I might not have come across otherwise. Love their work, also Jen Silver and Riley LaShea. There is so much out there and so little time!

As for general reading – I’m very into contemporary British lit. So people like Hilary Mantel, Jessie Burton, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan. Love that. And I love all writers who push at the boundaries of their genre – I just read Binti by Nnedi Okorafor. This is so what science fiction should be – a young, African female protagonist. We need more of those kinds of characters in speculative fiction

What is your greatest fear as an author?

hard disk crash lol – I really am bad at backing up my files. But apart from that – I don’t have any real fears. If people didn’t buy my books, I’d still write because I can’t not write. Which might be a weird thing to say, but it’s how I feel. For a while I thought it must be normal to write – that everyone was up to it, until a close friend disabused me of that idea. So I honestly can’t say where it comes from but I’m never going to stop.

How do you choose the names for your characters?

So I’m a bit of a Shakespeare fan – which is where Hal came from. But what I tried to do with the Duellist trilogy was to mix up various languages – some old English sounding names with more French styles. My fear however, is that I’m inadvertently going to name a character after a cleaning product or something like that. Hal’s lover is called Meracad, for example, and I’m convinced one day I’ll find out that’s actually a brand of toothpaste.

Where in the world are you?

Well it might surprise you to hear that I’m in sunny Poland. I say sunny because I understand you’ve been having a little trouble with your weather in the mid west recently and I thought I’d just rub that in  😉

I’ve been here in Poland for about 15 years now. I came for a few months to teach English…and just somehow kind of stayed. And for all the country’s problems – and it has more than its fair share – I love it here, and I absolutely love teaching English. I applied for a teaching position – a short term contract and got it. The accommodation was thrown in so I didn’t have to worry about it. Poland is a great country, really. I felt at home here straight away.

As a teacher, how old are the students are you teaching English to?

That’s the great thing – they’re every age! I mostly teach undergradates, who are fun – really. But I have a lot of private students who range from tiny kids to lawyers and doctors. It’s just the best way of meeting so many different people .

Do you plan to ever move back to England or are you staying in Poland?

Really can’t see it happening. For various reasons, I decided to put a bit of distance between myself and England. And while I love the country – especially north Derbyshire which is where I’m from, I have everything I want here in Poland. I started writing properly here, I’ve got a job I love and a partner. The only thing that makes me anxious is bloody Brexit. But let’s not go there…

How supportive was your family when you started writing? Do they know? Have they read you?

So my family know that I do it but they just think it contributes to my general weirdness. But anyway, as I may have observed elsewhere, I believe you should never write stuff safe enough for your parents to read. The thought of my mum reading Hal…

Pseudonym or not, what was your rationale?

I’m going to come across as a real coward now. Pseudonym yes. While I love Poland it’s not the most forgiving of places so I write under a pen name. I really don’t want my students reading my work. Having said that, one of them cunningly tracked me down and said she enjoyed it so I guess perhaps I’m worrying unnecessarily. But paranoia has always been my default position 😉

What are you working on right now?

So I’m working on part Two of The Artist Enchanters series ‘The Fresco and the Fountain.’ It’s proving to be a bit of a hard write though, which is why I got distracted by a short story which I’m planning to post on my blog and on Wattpad. This will be a kind of prequel to Hal. (First Chapter of this will be on my blog on Thursday) 

How much of your book is written in long-hand until you start typing it out?

Loads. I have like reams and reams of notebooks and I can’t bring myself to throw them away. The only problem is that my handwriting is appalling so it takes me a while to decipher it myself before I can actually type stuff up 😉

What is your story? Are you a lesbian? Have you ever come out?

So this is a complex one. I define as bisexual. I fell in love for the first time with another girl, and that was hard. Unrequited, you know? So rather than contemplating my sexuality at the time, all I could do was obsess about the fact that she didn’t love me back (story of my life). Anyway, after I left home I had relationships with men and women and I figured that sexuality kind of works along a spectrum. And that’s why – as I noted elsewhere – one of the best ways for me to think about my sexuality is through writing.

What is your biggest distraction when you write?

I am so easily distracted. Obviously the internet. That is the main thing, which is why I try to write by hand first so that I focus. But once I’m typing up, if I see amusing cat photos, I’m out for the rest of the day 😉

What would you like to see happen with your writing in say five years?

I would really like to be a better writer in terms of the way I deal with structure, with just being generally better at handling twists. I’ve also got plans for writing a work of historical fiction which would require a lot of serious research so that’s where I’m headed.

 

 

 

The Fresco and the Fountain: Sample Chapter

 

coast-horizon-landscape-59937

Here’s part of Muna’s story from the novel I’m working on at the moment: The Fresco and the Fountain is the sequel to The Firefarer, which you can obtain here:

Just a warning that if you’ve not read the book, this chapter contains some spoilers.

Muna

The Firefarer wandered distant shores in search of herself; her skin dusted with sand, her dress worn to its weave and the brackish taste of brine on her lips. And now the night was setting in; the sun a line of red draining into the ocean’s distant horizon. She watched it fade and sink. A few stars pierced the haze of dusk and a night wind plucked at her hair, whisking it before her eyes. The exertion of rowing had soaked her clothes in sweat, but now her muscles cooled and cramped and she shuddered, wrapping her arms around her waist and worming her toes into the grainy wetness of the beach.

She was back amongst her people at last; the lands of the Pagi a fading nightmare in which illusion had chased illusion.  She thought of Simone: so young, so beautiful and beguiling. Yet on the point of a knife he’d revealed himself to be a broken husk of a man, his body twisted and deformed with age. She thought too of the artist Artemisia who had sealed flesh and blood into canvas. And then she thought of her brother Hori, too weak to withstand their magic: burning himself to pieces on distant plains. She stifled the moan rising in her throat. If only she’d understood her own power. If only she’d acknowledged it; if she’d not blinded herself to it, then she might have saved him.

The dunes bristled with long grass and scrub, the wind sculpting the sand into deep hollows and steep rises. She longed to rest amongst them: to sit with her face buried in her arms and weep until the dawn. But to do so was to invite death, and Muna was not yet of a mind to die.

“Return to your source,” Moran had told her after the battle. “And once you’ve found it, return to us.”

She would do that for Hori’s sake. She would learn of her power, and of how she might control it. And when she was ready, she would take revenge for her brother’s death: first upon those Ahi warriors who still dreamed of war, and then upon the Pagi themselves. She thought of vengeance, of their screams, their panic and suffering, and raised a hand before her eyes. It pulsed. It glowed with light and heat, with rippling fire.

She allowed the image to slide away, her skin cooling as she forced herself to focus on the white swell of the waves, on the hissing of wind through the long grass, the air infused with the scent of salt and seaweed. This was not the time to waste her energy. She had to find food and shelter before the night sunk its claws into the land for good.

Muna pushed on upwards through the dunes, tiny avalanches of sand breaking beneath her bare feet until at last she could look across to wide, barren plains shielded on both sides by the shadowy mass of mountains. Dark patches littering the valley floor suggested villages or settlements: places where she might rest. But she knew her people built for the season not the year; ready to leave their homes any moment in search of food or safety. Those huts and hovels she spied might well be occupied by hunters, by warriors, by anyone who’d chanced upon them. Or they could just as easily be empty. She stepped onwards into the vastness of the gathering night.

That great, wild, open space beyond promised peace: a place to lie down, perhaps some dried meat or an abandoned skin of water. But it was too late to risk setting foot on the plains now, alone as she was and travel-weary. And to her right, a dull bark of laughter split the night. Startled, she turned and crouched back down beneath the line of the dunes, moving crabwise until she was level with the source of the sound. A flickering line of smoke payed out into the evening sky, carrying with it a hint of charred fish. Another coarse hack of a laugh was followed by muffled conversation and then a baby’s wail. Muna sucked on her lower lip. Just a family then, gathered around their fire to eat and talk, so heedless of the threat lurking in the dunes. For she was a threat: she was the fire to end all fires. But while hunger and thirst scratched at her belly, she could not remain in silence, hidden by the fading light. And so she forced herself to her feet, striding over the top of the dunes and down towards them, her hair and the bare threads of her clothes scrolling out on the wind.

At first they didn’t see her, absorbed as they were with the baby and their conversation. Their supper, she now saw, consisted of a few limp fish skewered on wooden staves and left to cook and spit over the flames. But her stomach grumbled at the sight and she pressed on until she was standing on the opposite side of their fire pit. Two men, one woman, their faces cast in shadow and light sat outside a roughly timbered hut. A small child peered out from behind his mother’s back, his eyes rounding with fear while she nursed the screaming infant, rocking it in her arms and glancing up at Muna. Naked to the waist one man rose, his chest and face dark with tattoos.

“What is it? What do you want?”

She fixed a shaking finger on the fire. “Warmth,” she said. “Food.”

He shook his head. “That’s for us. Those fish are for us – and there’s not enough. Go!”

She stood, staring, queasy with hunger. Desperation welled within like bile. She swallowed it down, knowing now where it might lead. “Please!”

The other man was on his feet now, older than his comrades, his thinning hair greying at the tips and his face lost entirely to ink. “You heard him. We’ve not enough for ourselves, never mind you. Be gone before my axe hears my anger.” He indicated the weapon propped against the beams of their hut, its twin blades gleaming in the firelight.

It was beginning: a tight kernel of heat unfurling within. Their refusal to allow her even a seat at their hearth, to feed her just a meagre mouthful of their fish. This was who they were: her famed people, the Ahi. Unwilling to help their own, to offer protection to a single, starving woman. Did they know who she was? If they did, they gave no sign. No sign, that was, until her skin wavered, translucent and light; the ochre and amber of flames flickering beneath it. The woman rose, backing away, clutching the baby in one arm and dragging the child behind her who still kept round eyes fixed on Muna. And then the men rose, the elder reaching for his axe.

The heat spread. She could feel it welling up, rising like a tidal wave in search of shore. She was spinning, wheeling upwards away from herself, and looked down at her own body: a blazing light against the darkness of the dunes. The woman was running from the hut, her child stumbling out onto the plains behind her while the warriors wielded axe and blade, circling her warily. Run! She told herself. Run, before it touches them: before the flames lick at their flesh. Before the skin melts from their bodies. Before fire kisses the grasslands and the dunes and wraps itself around the woman’s legs. Run!

She was running. Back in her body, exhausted, famished, the heat ebbing even as she drove herself forwards, stumbling, rising, falling again. She passed the woman and the children and continued into the night. Somehow, the flames had not consumed her this time: she had found her way back into her body before it was too late. But the thought of what might have been: of children lost to the heat of her rage, it caused her to gasp: to cry out in terror.

She sank again, turned around and peered back in the direction of the hut and the coast. They were not chasing her at least; they had been wise enough to stay where they were. But soon word would spread that the Firefarer had returned. And what then? What if they sought her, as they had sought her brother: to use her, to turn against their enemies? Or, more likely if news of the battle had reached their ears, perhaps they would hunt her down and destroy her. Sobbing, she scrabbled to her feet again and ran: stones, thorns and the sharp blades of grass biting into the bare soles of her feet. And up ahead, in the darkness, shapes were massing.

She paused, frozen. Out here on the plains was nothing but space, emptiness, wind and silence. She felt the mountains’ mass and might, looming on either side of the valley. There were no trees to shelter behind, no boulders beneath which she might crouch, and no way of knowing how close the nearest settlement lay. For a brief moment, she longed for the green forests and meadows of the Pagi, but they were far across the sea now and as treacherous as a night in the barren lands of the Ahi. And so she stood, and waited.

A horse snorted, there was a steady thud of hooves and then the shapes coalesced into the figures of five riders, all of them helmed and armed with spears, with tridents and swords, axes, bows and blades. They halted before her, stopped and stared. One man leaned over in his saddle and spat into the grass.

“And where might you be going?” A woman spoke, eyes set deep, glittering and hawkish behind her visor.

“I…” Muna’s voice had grown hoarse through lack of use. “I seek a bed for the night. And food. That is all.”

One man smirked. “She’s welcome to mine.”

“No!” The woman shook her head and jabbed at Muna’s chest with the butt end of her spear. “Look at her. No ink – some outcast or freak. How old are you, girl?”

“I…I don’t know. I’ve seen seventeen summers, I believe. Just let me pass. I’ll be on my way.” Again her fear was burying deep, transforming itself, turning into something vital, something dangerous. And this time she knew she would not contain it. “Let me…”

“Seventeen and no ink? No tattoos?” The woman’s words were an open challenge.

“No. I never…I was always too weak to fight.”

“You don’t look that weak to me, girl. In need of food, true enough.” The warrior’s voice was a needle pricking, burying its point beneath her skin. “Perhaps just kept at home too much? Daddy’s darling? Perhaps your family were protecting you?”

Protecting you, more like. “Look, just let me go. I’ll be on my way.”

“No. I don’t think so.” The woman straightened in her saddle. “I say we take her with us to the Pagi. Teach her to know her enemy; to earn her ink.”

“To…the Pagi? You can’t!”

“We can’t what?” One of the men rode behind her, preventing any flight back to the shore. The cold steel tip of a sword pressed between her shoulder blades. Fire licked at her veins, creeping with slow intensity through her body.

“We can’t what?” he repeated. “Avenge those men and women we lost out there? Who sought adventure and never returned? Take land from the Pagi which they are neither fit for nor worthy of?” He twisted the point of his blade, nicking her skin. Blood seeped into the seam of her dress. “You, an inkless brat would tell us what is and is not possible?”

“Yes. I would. I’ve been to the lands of the Pagi…”

The woman’s snort was indignant. “A stripling like you? Don’t lie, girl. If there’s one thing I hate more than a spoilt brat, it’s a liar.”

“I saw…” her mind was wheeling. Just a few more heart beats and she would lose control. Why would they not leave her be? “I saw the battle between the Pagi and our army.”

One of the men scratched at his jaw with casual contempt. “She’s lost her wits. She’s clearly mad…we should have seen it. Stumbling out here alone.” Bending low in his saddle, he spoke to her as if to a tiny child. “No one lived who was there. All that our people found were piles of ash. The Firefarer destroyed them all.” And then he froze. She noticed how his hands shook where they clutched the horse’s reins, how he straightened up and his lips moved around voiceless words. He understood: she saw it in his eyes. But his companions remained blind. And now she was above herself once more, staring down at them: at her own body which had acquired a sheen of light. She saw her assailants from above, the plumes of their helmets streaming out on the wind. And the grasslands stretching for league after monotonous league, leading west and towards the fire mountain.

“I said I saw the battle. I was there.”

“She’s…the Firefarer!” The words came out, a strangled whisper; the rider had reeled his horse around, was galloping away towards the coast, his fellow Ahi creased over in their saddles with laughter.

“Unta!” the woman called out, “The Firefarer was a boy. Don’t worry, we won’t let her hurt you.” And then the words dried on her lips, for she had seen the flames coursing beneath Muna’s skin: the way her body fractured as if it were a mere shell to reveal the liquid heat running beneath it.

“Spirits! Ride!”

The sword was gone from Muna’s back, they were readying themselves to charge, perhaps to ride her down. The fools. They were lost. She was lost. She couldn’t control it now: it was too late. And as the Ahi horses screamed with fear she watched, helpless as her own body betrayed her. As heat rose, as the animals sank to their knees, as flames engulfed the grass and scrub, and the skin of humans; the flesh of their mounts slid, viscous as resin from their faces, their limbs. As the stink of charred flesh became the cloying, acrid stench of ash. And she was back once more on the earth, staggering away in her weakened body, her tears transformed to steam even as her skin hardened and cooled. This curse had killed Hori: would it destroy her too? Would it eat her away until she herself was no more than flames and ash? She would never know, she realised, sinking to her knees in despair, unable to walk any further, hunger and exhaustion crashing down upon her, felling her until she was sobbing on the ground, surrounded by nothing but the wind, the mountains; not even a drop of water to quench the burning thirst which gripped her throat. It was over. The plains would take her. Muna closed her eyes. The world was a dark place. But the void into which she now fell was even darker.

 

Picture credit: Josh Sorenson

 

 

 

The Duellist Trilogy – Sample Chapter

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.

 

Chapter Three

Books

“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.”

“It won’t.”

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

 

The Angel Arch – A Short Story

The Angel Arch is a short story now available on my blog at:

https://katecudahy.wordpress.com/the-angel-arch-a-short-story

and as a pdf: The Angel Arch

I started writing The Angel Arch in October but had to give it up as I was concentrating on finishing Leda. The Angel Arch is  a freaky little ghost story inspired by the picture below.

20170605_120749

Writing Updates: The Duellist Series

So I’m delighted to be able to confirm that all three parts of The Duellist Series will be available to buy on Amazon as of 18th February, together with updated covers.

Set against a backdrop of political intrigue, epic battles and adventure, The Duellist Series follows the lives and loves of three women who risk their lives for freedom.

A disinherited young aristocrat, Hal Thæc forsakes her place at court to earn her living as a duellist. All of that changes when Hal falls in love with Meracad Léac, the freedom-craving daughter of a rich merchant. Meracad’s father will stop at nothing to ensure his own wealth and position, and plans to marry Meracad to Bruno Nérac, a powerful northern lord. Hal’s world is about to be thrown into chaos when she sets out to save the woman she loves.

The descendant of ancient emperors, Leda Nérac has finally come into her birthright: the wealthy northern city of Dal Reniac. Yet power brings new responsibilities and dangers. After the Emperor dies, his nephew Castor claims the imperial throne, instigating a reign of terror. Will Leda survive the bitter conflict which ensues?

 

I’ll be posting free chapters of the books, blog posts, details of discounts and perhaps even a reading of one of the chapters before the release, so stay tuned.

 

 

 

Moreover, the trilogy will also be available to purchase as a set together short story The Invitation:

 

 

Leda is now complete!

Leda Dryad Fantasy Kindle Cover

It’s been quite a journey, but Leda is now finished at last! It’ll remain on Wattpad while I’m editing it, and will be available on Amazon in the new year.
So…if you like any of the following: lesbian characters, duelling, windswept fortresses, tyrannical emperors, swashbuckling adventure, high jinks on the high seas, moorland, bisexual princes, hairy highlanders, more moorland, battle scenes, devious thieves, political coups, mystery, excitement, anguish and triumph…then there might just be something in it for you!

Read it for free here:

https://www.wattpad.com/story/85174329-leda-part-three-of-the-duellist-trilogy

Hal – Sample Chapter

A Sample Chapter  of Hal – “Books.” Complete with Hal’s sexy new cover.

Hal Dryad Fantasy Kindle Cover

Books

“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.”

“It won’t.”

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.

Hal is available on Amazon: http://geni.us/B00TQCH4VQ/

Leda – Sample Chapter: Oræl’s Story

Leda possible 2

As Leda is now well in progress on Wattpad, I thought I’d post another sample chapter here as it works quite well as a stand alone piece. Leda has been rescued from drowning by crofters.

You can catch up with the whole story here: www.wattpad.com/story/85174329-leda-part-three-of-the-duellist-trilogy

***

Yaga sighed and slumped down on the edge of the bed. “You tell her,” she said, throwing Lev a harsh, hard look.

He seemed to deflate suddenly, no longer the bear-like, burly fisherman who’d saved Leda from the lake, but an aging, weakened, careworn man. He crossed the croft to its furthest end, peering out through the tiny square of window at Brennac – its waters reflecting a soot coloured sky, the clouds rain swollen and ready to burst.

“I don’t suppose you know much of life down here on the crofts, Leda. Not living up there in your great fortress in Dal Reniac.”

“I know enough.” She curtly jutted her chin. “I’ve lived at Hannac most of my life, I know all my parents’ tenants.”

“Aye, it’s not the same, though.” He turned back into the room, his face grey and haggard. “You’ve not lived amongst us – until now. You’ll not know. It’s not just the years of fishing and farming, out in all weathers and all hours – day and night. It’s not even this – that your child cries for food at a time of lack such as is now, and you’ve nought to give them save water from the lake.”

“What is it, then?” she asked gently.

“Leda, it’s… us. The crofters – that is, we place bonds on ourselves. We watch each other. We wait. Who didn’t visit the shrine last week, who seems to look at another’s wife or husband, who’s dressed like a lord – wears fancy clothes – or who takes too much ale. Every moment, every minute of our lives we watch. We talk. We laugh, mock and sometimes we even chase out those who don’t belong – who, in our eyes at least don’t belong. Isn’t that so, wife?”

Yaga nodded, her eyes cast down to the floor.

“But Lev, Colvé is no different – or so my parents tell me. There are few who can truly call themselves free.” She thought of the night of the coronation – of her harsh exchange with Hal – and a hot, vicious seam of shame welled within.

“No, I’m sure,” said Yaga. “I’m sure folks are the same anywhere. But you see, Leda, here in a village like ours, we – we see more. The torment can be too great. And so it was with…with our daughter, Oræl.”

Leda sucked in her breath. “Your daughter?”

“Aye.” Lev’s eyes grew glossy, threatening to spill. He dragged a small stool to the centre of the room and sat down, clutching his knees in a strangely childlike way. “She was…always different, Oræl. Always wanting to fish with me – you could never keep her inside. Always had to be dashing about. If she wasn’t fishing, she’d be swimming or hunting. She was a wild, wild girl.” He smiled, and Leda detected a hint of pride.

“But that was alright, so long as she was a child,” Yaga continued. “Spirits, how good it is to speak of this to another. We’ve never told a soul, have we, Lev?”

“No. Never.” He rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands.

“As time went on, though,” Yaga continued, “the folks here saw it. Said it were a shame – in a young woman. Fit to be married, to have children of her own, and there she was – careering about the place like a savage. Fishing’s men’s work, they said. You remind her of that. With your belt strap, if need be.”

Lev winced. “Once. Once, I did it. Didn’t work, though. Just made her look at me different. After all, I was the one who’d allowed her to fish – she’s good at it. Where was the harm, I’d thought.”

“She’s…she’s alive?” Leda ventured.

“Oh aye. Alive. But not to us. Not to us.” Driven to tears, Yaga rose and left the croft. Leda stared at Lev.

“Yaga blames me, of course,” he said. “Thinks it’s all my fault.”

“Why?”

He shook his head. “The village was outraged. said they’d no longer have such a…a cursed creature like Oræl amongst them. There were even those who said she was a ræsling.”

Leda suddenly understood. “You made her go?”

Lev’s face crumpled, his eyes welled and finally spilled, and he sank his bare head into his hands. “I thought I was helping her, Leda. I thought I was saving her. I told her she’d no more a home in my croft until she’d learned her place – I’d find her a good lad from the village, I told her. She could settle down, bear us some grandchildren. I loved her – I didn’t want her to change. She’s my Oræl and she always will be. But I was a coward.”

He rose, and then, with unexpected viciousness, kicked the stool across the room. It crashed into a pile of nets. “I was such a damned coward.”

“Aye, Lev. You were.” Yaga spoke quietly from the doorway, her face now dry, her composure regained. “I warned him to leave her be. You could never keep Oræl down. She’d always have her way.”

“Just like someone else I know,” Leda murmured. “Where is she now?”

“Fishing up north somewhere – out of Anstræc most likely,” said Lev, trembling. “I went up there, begged her to come back. She just told me to take my boots off her boat.”

There was something so profoundly sad about Oræl’s story. Leda recognised Hal in the girl’s refusal to bend or break. She heard, too, the threat of loveless marriage which had been a reality for Meracad and could very nearly have become her own fate – that denial of freedom, that slow, living death. She saw this girl running, like herself, making her mark, casting her nets into Brennac’s dark waters while the world conspired to make her its slave.

“I’ll find her,” she said suddenly. “I’ll bring her back to you.”

Yaga’s smile was mournful. “It’s good of you, Leda, but you yourself are – well, the Emperor’s men are searching for you.”

“I know.”

“They’ll catch you.”

“They won’t.” They’ll never catch me, she decided. Not alive, at least.

“Leda, what are you doing? Where are you going?”

It had started to rain. She stepped outside for the first day in many – turned her face to the clouds dressed in her crofter’s coarse woven dress, her feet bare, the mud of the village oozing between her toes. Across the dirt road two men stared at her – both weather brown and wrinkled – one with a coarse growth of greying beard across his chin, the other clean shaven, wiry, his expression hardening from surprise to recognition. She didn’t care. The rain fell harder, soaking her to the bone as she strode to the centre of the village – to the post on which hung her likeness, and that of her mother. As more faces peered from croft doors, she stripped the parchment from the post and held it aloft.

“This is me – Leda Nérac, Lady of Dal Reniac. Just so you can tell the Emperor’s men when they pass this road again that you’ve seen me.” She crumpled the paper in her fists. “Or you can remain faithful to me – support me and my family. The Emperor is dangerous.”

All eyes were on her now. In spite of the rain, her blood felt hot.

“He is a tyrant. You may not believe me now, but by all the spirits you will do when the time comes. So make your choice. You can hand me in, if you like, but if you let me go now, I’ll return home to Dal Reniac, and I’ll fight for you.”

Not a word. Not a murmur.

“I ask just one thing – give yourselves freedom. Only you can do that.”

She turned at last to Lev and Yaga who stood shivering in their doorway, Lev’s arm folded around his wife’s shoulders. “I keep my promises,” she said.

A single track wound its way from the village, up across moorland towards the jagged crags which overhung the lake. Leda began to walk. And no one followed her.

Extract from Leda – Book 3 of The Duellist Series

I was just writing this scene and realised it works quite well as a stand alone piece. Basically it’s a monologue told from the perspective of Castor, chief villain of the story as he is crowned Emperor. But I think it also reveals some of the major tensions in ‘Leda’. I’m serialising the novel over on Wattpad at the moment. The first parts are available on Amazon.

 http://www.wattpad.com/story/85174329-leda-part-three-of-the-duellist-trilogy

Around him went the priests, swinging thuribles of incense on long brass chains. On the verge of choking, Castor squeezed his lips together, refusing to submit to weakness at this most symbolic of moments. His eyes watered, he held his breath…it was no good. Air starved, he glared up at the temple guardian who circled the throne once more, his beard coiling to his waist, a long, brown swathe of plaited hair snaking down his back. The man’s eyes were sharp with zeal, his voice reverent and low as he muttered incantations, prayers to the spirits, Diodiné now seated amongst their highest ranks. But it was no good appealing to a fanatic like the guardian, Castor realised. Without the incense and invocations, without the vigils, the holy water and oil, Castor could not be Emperor. All of it mattered – every last detail of this painful process. For there could be no question – no single doubt in the people’s minds that he was their ruler.

This was the moment which would end all the gossip, the slander and the lies. For he, and only he was the rightful heir to Colvé, the North, the eastern seaboard, Brennac and the vales and mountains of the West. Even Yegdan and those barbarians would come to understand that soon. He, Castor, third of…it was no good. He had to breathe. He couldn’t stand it any longer. If only that idiot would give up his droning for a moment, would put his stinking incense aside…but it was too late.

Castor coughed into the back of his gloved hand, and found he could not stop. Tears ran down his face, coursing a path through the white powder on his cheeks. When he sealed his lips, his lungs seemed to spasm and flare, birthing yet another cough, until he was crumpled and wheezing, the wide eyes of the court turned upon him, and the temple guardian apparently oblivious to the torture he was inducing in his Emperor.

At last the droning stopped, the incense was set aside and the air began to clear, revealing Castor bent double, shaking and gasping for breath. Once his coughing fit had subsided, he managed at last to sit upright. Was somebody laughing? He listened hard. The priest droned on, his words echoing out into the temple’s stillness. Castor was almost certain now that his future subjects were smirking at him. But who? Who amongst this throng of people could he trust? Who could he not?

To the fore sat his immediate family – his mother, too mad to even care if he were emperor or ironmonger now. She stared lifelessly ahead, her eyes a pale, blank blue, her lips curled up into their habitual smile as she whispered to herself in half remembered words. And his aunt Evelia, fat and sweaty in her black mourning garb. An old traitress who’d hung on her dead husband’s every word and had whispered against Castor in the corridors of the palace with the old court cronies she called her friends. Soon to join Diodiné, if there were any justice. No wonder her private guard accompanied her everywhere – that Brighthair woman – freakishly tall and powerful of build, with cropped auburn hair and a sword swinging from her belt. A former duellist, he’d heard, now retired into court livery and a handsome salary drawn right out of the palace coffers. Well, she’d be losing both once the old bitch had gone the way of her husband.
And beside them, Josen. Could he trust his brother? Did he trust his brother? Castor prickled with unease. Of course he didn’t. Trust a man who befriended scoundrels like Degaré of Dal Reniac and his two thieving accomplices? Who spent his nights amongst the dregs of Riverside stirring up who knew what trouble, and his days fraternising with Senators who ought to know their place? And of course, loved by every woman from the palace to the city walls for his lazy good looks: that head of thick golden hair and those sky blue eyes which spoke charm but hinted deceit. But Josen would know that even a Prince’s neck would fit a noose given enough time.

The guardian was returning, this time with a casket of holy oil. Castor closed his eyes. Just one more ritual; one step closer to confirmation of his absolute power, a power invested in him by the ancestors themselves. He felt the guardian’s thumb slide down his forehead, slick and warm, leaving a trail of the precious substance which dripped down onto the tip of his nose. That added to his discomfort. He wanted to wipe it away, but knew that to do so would be to annul the entire ceremony. And there could be no risk of that – no risk of uncertainty. Not when so many of those now gathered in the temple today had once questioned Castor’s right to the throne.

He opened his eyes, picking them out one by one. There, for example, half hidden behind that column was the Senator, Tobiac Treniac, who had championed the senate’s rule in the absence of a direct imperial heir. Half his thin, rat-like face was shielded by stone, the other watchful – nervous. And with good reason.  And then towards the rear of the temple was the Westerner, Lord Roc, who had declared that his own son had a greater claim to the throne than Castor – some nonsense about imperial forebears. Surely, Castor thought with a grim, inward laugh, a headless son lacks all legitimacy? And then…

His eyes fell upon a strange group, also huddled like conspirators at the back. He made out the frail frame of Senator Marc Remigius, his gnarled old hands wrapped around an intricately carved walking stick. Remigius had been Castellan of Dal Reniac for some time, until the city could be handed over to…Castor started. That must be her. He hadn’t laid eyes on her for, perhaps twelve years. She had been a child then. Now, she was a woman grown – weather tanned like other northerners, but slim and lithe as a young colt or cat. A mass of dark curls tumbled down her back, and her grey eyes were sharp and intelligent. Well, her father had been Bruno Nérac after all: a true descendant of emperors, not like Roc’s jumped up little pretender. Was it possible that her grandfather had been a mere merchant? For there was nothing workaday or vulgar about Leda Nérac. She was an aristocrat – a thoroughbred. Blue of blood and … his pulse quickening, his gaze fell on the two other members of her little entourage. That must be the mother – a good looking woman too. Waifish in build, she wore a simple dress of green satin, her hair threaded through an intricate series of loops and plaits. His attention slid from Meracad to Leda and back again. Wife? Mother-in-law? would it…could it work? Had Josen been right after all? In one brilliant move to control the North, to bring it to heel without the need or expense of war and to suppress all those doubts? For surely no one, not even Roc would dare question his own claim to the throne when it was tied to the Nérac dynasty. No one except…

She was there too. For that must be her. What other woman would have the arrogance to attend her coronation in such attire? He clenched and flexed his fingers. Bastard born and dressed like a man in a great coat and trousers, her hair tied back to reveal a gaunt, almost hawkish face.

The descendant of a rebel and a known whore. A woman who would certainly corrupt Leda Nérac if she had not done so already, who might even seek, through Nérac, her own influence and power. Diodiné had sought to marry Leda to Castor when she came of age, but Hannac and her ‘wife’ had opposed it. How dare they! And how could his Uncle have backed down? Another example of his weakness.

The plaited fool was back again, this time bearing the crown. Once again, Castor closed his eyes. This time, no one would force him to remove that golden circlet from his head, no one could take this honour from him. He rose, the court rising with him, cheering and applauding. He looked over their heads and caught Hannac’s eye. With arms folded and insolent eyes, she stared back. No one.