Leda: An Extract

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When Hal goes bad, she goes really bad. Here’s an extract from my latest book, Leda – Part Three of The Duellist Trilogy. 

Tipping the Balance

This bloodsucking leech of a world which just seemed to keep taking until Hal had no more left to give…it had finally thrown something back. Leda was the break of sun through storm clouds; she was flower petals mingling with the sand and heat of the desert. She had returned.

Hal held Leda at arm’s length, unable to speak, taking in the girl’s outlandish clothes ˗ the shirt and trousers twice her size, besmirched with mud and torn to rags. Her ill-fitting boots and the heavy sheepskin draped over her shoulders. Her wild curls were plastered to her face with rain and sweat and dirt. She was thin: half-starved, Hal guessed, and pale with exhaustion. And somehow aged, as if in weeks she’d witnessed years. Unwilling to let the girl go again, Hal drew her closer, squeezing her so hard that Leda yelped.

“Where have you been?”

“If I told you, Hal, you might not believe me. I’ll write you another book some day. It all seems more like a story than the truth.”

Hal read the suffering in Leda’s face, the lines of worry etched into her skin. “A tale to frighten children with?”

Leda looked away. “Something like that.” She gnawed on her lower lip and shivered. “My saviour, Oræl,” she said.

Drawing from Hal’s embrace, she threw an arm around the shoulders of her companion: auburn haired and golden eyed, strong and long of limb, her face freckled, weather-worn and honest. Hal warmed to her immediately.”Is it true?” she asked. “Did you save her?”

“We saved each other,” Oræl said. Hal detected a crofter’s accent, thick and melodic. She observed, too, how Oræl leaned towards Leda, as if drawn to her on an invisible thread.

There was a snapping of undergrowth, a pummelling of the ground, as Roc’s army marched outwards and onto the moors. Leda gripped Oræl’s hand in fear.

“Don’t worry, Leda. That’s the rest of us. Magda is here and Jools, and…”

“Mother?” Leda asked, the breath catching in her throat.

Hal shook her head, guilt and loss stealing up on her in equal measure. “Leda, your mother is Josen’s prisoner.”

“What?”

“It was my fault. We argued and…”

“Well, well, well…the moors do deliver up their treasures!” Jools jumped down from her horse, her voice sharp with surprise. Hal closed her eyes in frustration.

“Leda, from which well of hope did you spring?” Jools grinned, swinging Leda around. “Sometimes it’s like all your birthdays rolled into one, ain’t it, Hal?” She caught Hal’s eye and winked. “Well cheer up for the spirits’ sakes! Something good’s happened for a change.

“She doesn’t know yet,” said Hal.

“What doesn’t she know?”

Hal hissed with irritation. “Leda,” she began gently.

“We’ve already heard, Hal. We passed through Lake End and they told us everything. We were headed for Hannac, but…” her voice trailed away, her eyes deepening with sorrow. “Now Dal Reniac needs us. I’ll talk to Castor, I’ll do anything to stop him.”

“Well, what do you know?” Jools said, elbowing Hal in the ribs. “That’s exactly where we’re headed too, isn’t it, Hal?”

Hal winced. “My dead are at Hannac.”

“But it’s the living in Dal Reniac who need us now, Hal.” Magda, pushed her way through  the throngs of soldiers. Word of Leda’s return was greeted with cheers and shouts as the news carried through the ranks. Magda embraced Leda warmly, kissing her on her forehead.

“Hal, you can’t help Hannac now. I know how desperately you must want to get back there,” Leda said. “I want that too, believe me. But we have a duty to the city. And to Edæc.”

Magda threw Hal a confused look. “But my brother’s probably dead, Leda.”

“No! At Lake End they said he fled to Dal Reniac before Castor had reached Hannac.”

Relief flooded Magda’s face. “Spirits, may it be the truth,” she whispered. A snort of contempt from the older of the two prisoners cut through her prayer.

“So these are Castor’s spies?” Jools turned her gaze on Davic and his companion, still held at knife point by Roc’s men. “Hal, they’re all yours.”

Reluctantly, Hal shifted her gaze from Leda to Davic. “It seems odd, doesn’t it?” she asked. “We hear so many reports of Hannac destroyed, of all its people put to the sword or burnt alive. And yet here you are, Davic. Wandering the moors at will.”

“I escaped, Hal,” Davic gasped. “It was awful. I ran, and…they were screaming. People running, Castor’s guards everywhere, blood…” spit flecked his lips.

“Yes. So I imagine. Every hour of every day and night.”

“He’s lying!” Leda cried. “We heard them talking before you arrived. They were speaking about you, Hal, and of the thieves…and of what Davic had done at Hannac.”

“Well is that so?” Hal wetted her lips with her tongue. She’d never trusted the boy. He’d always had a tendency to whine, to blame others for his own weaknesses, to gossip and gloat over the tenants’ misfortunes. She’d tolerated him for Luc’s sake. “And just what is it that you did at Hannac, Davic? Perhaps your friend here can enlighten us. I don’t remember seeing him before.” She slipped her sword from her belt, waving it an inch from the spy’s face. “You’re a Berasé man, perhaps?”

He watched her for a moment, a thin smile creeping across his dark, unshaven cheeks, his eyes fuelled with hatred. And then he hawked hard and spat in her face.

After all those nights spent dreaming of murder and revenge, after the days of riding, hollowed out and lost, she surprised herself with her restraint, dragging the back of her sleeve across her cheek. But then, she realised that for the first time in days she had power. She was in control. And she was prepared to take her time.

“Your friend doesn’t seem to like me, Davic,” she said. “I wonder why?”

“It’s true what I said, Hal! I met him on the moors. I was wandering for days. My Da killed, and Arec and all of them.” He broke into pitiful sobs. “It was hell.”

“I’m sure. Tie them both to that tree over there.”

As Davic and the older man were dragged to a thick oak tree on the fringe of the forest, Magda laid a hand on Hal’s arm. “Hal,” she warned. “We’re no better than they are if we…”

“I know what I’m doing,” she growled, hit by a sudden flash of anger. “And you’d do the same in my place. Jools, give me your knife.”

“With pleasure.”

She was wrong of course, and Magda was right. She knew it in the very fibre of her being. What she wanted to do now would break her apart. It would send her spiralling, plummeting away from herself, from all the rules she had ever consciously clung to. And yet she couldn’t stop herself. Something had snapped within her back at Roc’s fortress. She couldn’t hold herself back. The world had demanded too much for her to care about restraint anymore.

Hal crouched in front of the two men, now bound to the broad trunk of the oak, Davic whimpering and crying, the older man still capable of contempt, his eyes hard and fixed on the point of Jools’ knife which she waved before his face.

“So who are you, Sir? I like to put a name to a man I’m about to hurt.”

His lips tightened to thin, white lines. She considered him for a few moments, balancing the knife on the tips of her fingers, rotating it over and over. And then she drove it hard into his left shoulder. There was a collective gasp, punctured by a few ugly cheers. Magda dived forwards to stop her, but Roc and Cesary held her back.

“Bastard born bitch of a whore.” He spat the words out at her in his pain, sweat beading his brow, blood blotting the worsted of his jacket and fanning out beneath his armpit and across his chest.

“Well he’s right about the first part,” said Jools helpfully, peering over Hal’s shoulder.

Hal threw her a look of disgust. “Now, Sir, no more speculating on my birth, my character or my occupation. We’re here to talk about you. And what you were doing wandering the moors with Davic.”

“Kayetan!” Davic suddenly screamed. “His name’s Kayetan!”

“Good. That’s good. Now we’re getting somewhere.”

“Don’t utter another word, fool!” Kayetan gasped, his face draining of colour.

“Davic,” leaving the knife buried in Kayetan’s shoulder, she twisted round to face the Hannac boy. Leda stood just to the left of the oak. The girl’s face was bereft of emotion, her grey eyes cold and impassive. Something told Hal to stop: to pull out the knife, to patch Kayetan up, to leave him to heal and Davic to his guilt. To stop this vile, bloody performance before more damage was done. But she couldn’t. The anger, the sorrow, the fracture to her spirit: it all ran too deep.

“Davic,” she said again.

He was a crumpled, weeping mess. A hot trickle of urine leaked out onto the grass between his legs, steaming as it hit the cold earth.

“I want you to watch what I’m about to do to Kayetan,” she continued.

“No!” He moaned.

“Watch him!” She seized the boy’s hair, twisting his head around until he could not help but look at the older man. “Because I’m going to do it to you too…”

Davic’s breathing grew feverish and ragged, his sweat coated her hand.

“…unless you answer all my questions. For the sake of your father who was ˗ I assume he’s now dead ˗ an honourable man, I’ll give you a chance. But tell me, what really did happen at Hannac?”

“I ran,” he said, but this time there was no conviction in his voice. “I escaped.”

“But Leda says otherwise. And with all the best will in the world, Davic, I trust her far, far more than I ever trusted you.”

“I…ran.”

“No you didn’t.” She curled her fingers around the handle of Jools’ knife. And then she twisted, Kayetan screaming as the blade ground through gristle, tendons and muscle.

“I think he’d rather you told the truth actually, Davic. Isn’t that right, Kayetan?”

“You monstrous traitor.” Kayetan was breathing hard through his nose, his jaw clenched in a bid to stop himself from howling in agony.

“Now I’m certain that he doesn’t like me.” She turned back to Davic. “I don’t blame him. I’ve been there myself, you see. I know how he feels. At first, you think that the torture will stop…eventually. When you realise that’s not about to happen, you start thinking about death, and what a relief it would be.”

Kayetan seemed to be fighting a battle with consciousness, his eyes rolling in their sockets, his breathing feverish.

“I don’t think he’s quite there…yet,” Hal said. “When you realise that they won’t even grant you that mercy, you wonder if you can bring yourself to beg. For death, I mean. It’s an awful thing. It takes you apart piece by little piece, until you forget who you really are. I don’t think you ever truly recover.”

Leda was still there, hovering behind Davic, her expression one of crafted ice. Hal immediately regretted the confession.

“But look,” she said. “I don’t want us to get that far. So for the spirits’ sakes!” She grabbed his hair again and shouted into his face. “Tell me what happened!”

He twitched and spasmed, his body now jerking beyond his control. He closed his eyes. “Arec let him in,” he said at last.

“So it was all Arec’s fault?”

“No! He thought…he though Castor would respect the ancient laws of hosts.”

She rocked back on her heels. Arec ˗ he would have done that, the trusting fool. He would have seen Castor as another Diodiné: a firm, fair respecter of tradition. “And then what?” she asked quietly.

“Castor and his men…they murdered, slaughtered, burnt…all of them.” Bending over in his bonds, he heaved and retched, vomiting into a patch of leaves. Ready to throw up herself, she backed away, rose and turned.

Still caught between Roc and his son, Magda shook her head. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“Whatever it takes.”

Hal twisted back round and peered down at Davic. “So they all died, did they? All of them? Your father, Arec, Elis, the tenants, their children?”

He nodded, a few strings of drool flecking his lips and chin.

“Except for you.”

“He betrayed the Crofter, you stupid cow!” Kayetan suddenly brayed.

“What?”

“He betrayed the Crofter from here to hell and back.”

“No!” Davic gasped.

“You told them Edæc had run?” She dropped back down to face him. “Did you?”

There was a silence, broken only by the angry mutterings of Roc’s men. And then Davic screamed, “Yes!”

“Why?”

“I thought it would save us if I told them Edæc was gone.”

Before she even realised what was happening, Leda had slapped Davic hard across the face. “How could you? Davic, we were children together ˗ all of us. We were friends!”

“He was never one of us!” Davic rasped, ducking from her blows. “He was always yours!”

“Leda!” Hal seized Leda’s wrists, drawing her close until the struggle had left her, until she had exhausted herself.

“Didn’t make any difference, anyway.” Kayetan’s laughter was a hoarse rattle of phlegm. “Fabiac and Gric handed him over to Castor once he reached Dal Reniac. He screamed for you, Leda Nérac, when they strung him up. Screamed and yelled your name, he did, thinking you were dead. Wept like a babe.”

She tensed in Hal’s arms. And then she fled, ripping from her grasp, running down into the forest. Without a word, Oræl turned and followed her.

“And you too.” Kayetan fixed his leer on Magda. “You’re Brighthair, aren’t you?”

Magda had wrested free of Roc and Cesary; was prowling with soft, dangerous steps towards him, her revulsion at Hal’s cruelty now giving way to abject, undisguised horror. “They hung him?”

“Aye. With a placard around his neck: ‘Lord Crofter.'” His laughter was like a rook’s harsh caw. “You’ll see him before you reach Dal Reniac. In fact, you’ll probably smell him before you see him by now, I’d expect.”

Magda ran, bowling into Hal who pushed her back. “Magda, don’t. We need him alive,” Hal yelled, but Magda had already forged past her, dragging the knife from Kayetan’s shoulder. His eyes rounded in fear as he saw his own death before it hit him, as she plunged the dagger deep into his chest. Blood bubbled out between his lips and he flailed helplessly against the ropes. And then he sank, the life moaning out of him as Magda stepped away, staring at her own hands and shaking, her face twisted with torment. Hal reached for her but she staggered from her grasp and disappeared amongst the troops.

“Well,” Hal breathed. “It looks as if it’s just you and me now, Davic. So you really had better start giving me more. What are Castor’s intentions in Dal Reniac?”

Davic swivelled around, unable to look away from Kayetan’s corpse; at the way the dead man’s head lolled on his neck like a ball on a string, his body folded in upon itself. Then he looked at Hal. “He’ll bend it to his will,” he said, his voice now strangely sober, the tone of a man who’d witnessed so much terror that he’d been purged of all fear. “Or he’ll break it.”

“I see. So Gric and Fabiac let him in?”

“They opened the gates to him, yes.”

“And if he’s so certain of his power, why send spies like yourself back outside the city?”

“Because…Hal, did you mean it? Will you let me go?”

“I always say what I mean, boy.” She was tired suddenly, so tired of all this pain, this cruelty, of the damage she’d inflicted on others and upon herself.

“An army’s coming.”

“Well of course an army’s coming, boy!” Roc sounded incredulous. “My army!”

“No!” Davic panted. “From the east. Another one. When he heard of it he…Castor…he decided to send out scouts everywhere.”

“She’s done it!” Jools suddenly screeched, performing a mad little dance. “Oh my darling! Oh my princess! She’s a diamond, a little beauty! Oh! Oh, Kris! Oh, you’re a genius, mate!”

“Jools!” Hal turned to her, shaking her head. “Please!”

“Don’t kill me! Please, Hal!” Davic begged again.

“Shut up! Shut your lying, betraying mouth, Davic!” She pulled the knife from Kayetan’s chest, her hands now slippery with blood and raised it before the boy’s face. He closed his eyes, whispering to himself in prayer. And then she brought the blade down hard against the ropes. When he opened his eyes, he was free.

“Listen to me, Davic.” Before he could scrabble to his feet, she’d grabbed him by the back of his neck and forced him to his knees, his face hovering an inch from Kayetan’s slumped body. “You see what I did? You see what Brighthair did?”

He nodded, snivelling and sobbing, his entire body heaving. “I’m going to give you a horse. I’ll even give you an escort, just so I know you’ve made it to the gates of Dal Reniac. And once you’re in, I want you to deliver this message back to your Master, back to Castor.”

He shifted beneath her grasp but she held him down, pressing the knife to his neck. “Tell Castor that I’ll do the same thing to him. Look at him, so that you remember every detail. Can you do that?”

He nodded again.

“Good. Now get up.”

He was on his feet, his face flushed, his eyes red.

“And go.” She was so exhausted that she could barely stand herself. “Go!” She pushed him towards a pair of guards. “Follow him. Make sure he gets there,” she said.

“He won’t tell Castor.” Jools bent to retrieve her knife, wiping it on a rag.

“Once he’s inside Dal Reniac, he’ll have no choice. They’ll find him.”

“I never knew you had it in you…” the thief said, jabbing her thumb at Kayetan’s mutilated body, her eyes glittering with what might have been admiration.

Hal felt sick. “Neither did I,” she whispered, heading for the forest. “Leda!” She yelled out into the trees, but there was no reply. “Leda!”

Had she lost her again? Desperate, she scrambled down the bank: running, clinging to branches for balance.

“She’s here!” Oræl’s voice filtered back up to her through the woodland. Hal ran, slipped, cursed and ran again, spying at last the two women as they clung to each other ˗ Leda shaking, her knuckles white where she gripped Oræl’s shoulders. Over Leda’s head, Oræl stared at Hal with a look which almost bordered on fear. Hal glanced down at her hands, still running crimson with Kayetan’s blood. Bending over, she plucked some leaves from the ground and wiped them across her palms. The crofter backed away, leaving Leda alone amongst the trees.

“What have you done?” She turned to Hal, drawing her hands across her face, her lips twisted with shock and disgust.

“What do you mean?”

“Hal, you just tortured a man. You tied him to a tree and you…that wasn’t defending yourself or fighting in battle. That was sadistic. It was…oh, I haven’t words!”

“Leda…Edæc’s dead!”

“I know he’s dead! I know that. I feel it with my entire body. But will your butchery bring him back to me?”

“Butchery?”

“Yes! Let’s call it by its real name. Let’s not pretend. What makes us different from Castor, Hal, is that we don’t torture or kill others just because we have the power to do so. And the minute we do…as Magda said, we’re no better than they are!”

“Magda…who just drove her knife through a man’s heart out of revenge?”

“She was finishing what you’d started. What would my mother have said, Hal?”

“Oh…” flooded with shame, she turned away, unable to look at Leda. “You play your cards so well.”

“This isn’t a game and I’m not holding any cards. What would she have thought?”

She was so weary, her spirit so weighted down now. Hal leant against a tree, her back to its bark and slowly worked her way down until she was sitting amongst the roots. “She’d not recognise me,” she said at last. “These days, Leda, I barely recognise myself.”

Her face swollen from crying, Leda stared at her for a long time. The fog had lifted, but rain had taken its place ˗ light, gentle, as if the sky itself were weeping. With a long, mournful sigh, Leda flung herself down onto the wet earth beside Hal. “I still see you, Hal Hannac,” she said at last. ‘You’re still there. Just try to do what you do best. Defend us with your sword if you have to, take the fight to Castor. But please, no more torture. No more cruelty.”

Hal rested the back of her head against the tree, rain dusting her face.

“Hal, I know…I understand what tips the balance between man and monster, I feel it so well. It would take so little to turn me into my father.”

“What?” Shocked out of her stupor, Hal turned to look at Leda. “What did you say?”

“I understand,” Leda said. “I could kill every one of them now, for Edæc’s sake. I could have stood and watched you rip out Davic’s heart. I come this close every single day.” She held her thumb and forefinger up to the air. “My fear over what you’re becoming…it’s my own fear. It’s fear for myself.”

Hal shook her head. “What are you talking about, Leda? You’re the purest thing living in this rotten world.”

“No, I’m not. And you see it…you and my mother. I know that you do. You see my father every time you look at me.”

“Your father? Oh, Leda!” Hal slipped an arm around the girl’s shoulders, pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. “You’re not Bruno Nérac’s daughter,” she said.

Leda stiffened. “Am I not? Whose daughter am I, if not his?”

“You’re mine.” Hal drew her closer. “You’re my daughter, Leda. You always have been. And you always will be.”

“Spirits!”

She felt the girl break again, her body racked with sobs as they sat beneath the tree, rain washing away the blood.

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Release of The Duellist Trilogy

I think I started writing Hal around 2012 and I had absolutely no idea what to do with it. I knew there was a story there, but I largely wrote for my own entertainment. And as I had a lot of other commitments at the time, I ended up stuffing the thing in a drawer and doing my best to forget about it.

It was only when I discovered the online writing platform Wattpad that I decided it might at least be fun to share Hal with a few other people. And it was a really pleasant surprise when I received some positive feedback, constructive criticism and encouragement. So I thought, what the hell? I’ll carry on writing.

Both Hal and Hannac would have stayed on Wattpad, however, were it not for the help of Rob May (author of the Dragon Killer Series) who set up Firebound Books together with two other independent writers – T J Garrett and Matthew Olney. Rob suggested publishing the books through Amazon, and although I was initially sceptical about the idea, I decided to give it a go. I’m enormously grateful to Rob and Firebound for all that support. With hindsight, I now realise that there was nothing to worry about, and the books have now reached a much wider readership than they had on Wattpad. Publishing on Amazon has given me the push I needed to keep going. I’m now in the process of writing the second part of the Artist Enchanters series (The Fresco and the Fountain) and I’ve got ideas for several other future projects.

The internet has really changed the way people write fiction. I see it very much as a collaborative process, and I’ve changed quite a few of my ideas as a result of readers’ suggestions. In fact, I almost see writing online as akin to the old oral traditions of storytelling in which the narrative might alter with each retelling, or listeners might offer their own ideas which would be incorporated into the plot. This is really what writing on line has given me – the opportunity to learn, to grow and develop as an author and to respond to readers’ suggestions in a way I’d never have been able to do in a traditional context. Add to that all the possibilities for engagement through social media and sites like goodreads or Wattpad, and the idea of writing as a solitary process goes out the window. I feel I have a long, long way to go as a novelist, but I am certain that the interaction I’ve enjoyed with other authors and readers has helped to get me to the stage where I’m now writing my fifth book.

So this is a long-winded way of saying thanks to everyone who’s helped me, whether it was through reading and commenting on Wattpad, helping me with the technical aspects of publishing, buying my work on Amazon or engaging on social media. I am absolutely certain that were it not for that kind of support, I wouldn’t be releasing The Duellist Trilogy today.

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

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.

 

Leda – an extract

An extract from Part Three of ‘The Duellist’ series, Leda.

If you haven’t had chance to take a look at the first two parts, Hal (part one) is currently on sale on Amazon, so now’s the chance!

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Halfway up the stairs, Meracad stopped, raised her candle and listened. No sound other than the wind as it channelled downwards, fluting through chinks around the window panes. Hannac was asleep: every last tenant, servant, child and animal, snoring out the night in beds or on benches, some curled up before the dying embers of the hearth or curled around each other for warmth. Yes, everyone was asleep. Well, almost everyone.

Caught by another chill current of air, the candle flame guttered and died, leaving her stranded in absolute darkness. She sighed, set down her light, and then felt her way on upwards, hands outstretched, fingers tracing the rough stonework of the walls.

She knew when she was at the top though, for a dull, amberish light flickered out beneath a door frame. Meracad knocked twice, and then pressed her ear to the wood. Nothing. Not a sound. She pressed down the handle and stepped inside.

A few candles, burnt almost to their wicks, lit up the cramped space which had once served as Franc Hannac’s private chamber. Now his daughter sat at the same desk, which was littered with ledgers, parchment, half empty inkwells and quills. Splintered by the diamond shaped mullions of the windows, moonlight filtered in, casting a silvery trail upon the floorboards. And it was freezing: so cold that Meracad instinctively drew her shawl more tightly around her shoulders.

Hal looked up, her eyes ringed with shadow. She grew paler every day, Meracad observed, worn down with care for her tenants, her face gaunt and sharp. Her hair hung, loose and unkempt to her shoulders, now peppered with an occasional skein of grey. And her only concession to the cold was the greatcoat which now seemed loose and somehow too big for her: more of a shroud than a garment.

“Hal, come to bed.” Her heart heavy, Meracad edged around the desk and slid her arms around Hal’s shoulders.

Hal shook her head. “I can’t.”

“It’s too late to think about this now.” Sliding a stray lock of hair behind Hal’s ear, Meracad kissed her head. “Look at it in the morning. With fresh eyes. You may find a way.”

“There is no way!” Her voice was hoarse, angry and tired. “If we send tithes to Colvé and Dal Reniac, as we must do, then everything will be gone. All that’s left. We were so careless, Meracad. So wasteful.”

“But Leda doesn’t need our tithes! Marc made sure Dal Reniac was well supplied with grain before he returned to Colvé.”

“As I failed to do.”

“Hal!” This was an argument they had had many times over the last few days and weeks. Meracad was beginning to tire of it.  “You have done everything you could have done.”
“Franc wouldn’t have let his people starve.”

“And neither will you.” Turning to the window, Meracad peered down into the empty, moonlit courtyard. Hal was wrong. Of course, they had not anticipated such a weak harvest. But by all accounts, this was the worst in living memory. First had come a winter so harsh it had transformed the fields to icy wastes, had frozen men and women to the very ground upon which they stood. And when spring arrived at last, it brought no relief: no sun to thaw out the land or warmer winds. Instead, it ushered in a season of cold rain, which pooled in the furrows and upon the meadows. The few seedlings which pushed through the surface drowned, their leaves rotting where they lay. And seeing that, the tenant farmers had ridden back to Hannac, their faces worn with worry, their eyes betraying their fears. Because soon, they said, all that would  be left was last year’s grain stock. And then the draft animals. And then? They spread wide their hands, shrugged and sat hunched in corners, rain dripping from their hats and cloaks.

“Hal, we still have stocks left. There are beets in the cellars, salted meat…”

“Not enough!” Hal groaned, rubbing at her forehead with ink stained hands. “And if this isn’t the first such harvest? Arec told me his great grandfather endured such a famine for three years! Half his family died, Meracad. They ate everything – all the animals. They were foraging for grass and roots towards the end!”

“It won’t happen.”

“Oh, you know that, do you?” She slapped a palm down on the leather cover of a ledger. Meracad jumped. “I know exactly what we have, Meracad. It’s all in here…in these books and papers. We may last to the next spring if we are very careful. But we will go hungry, and some of us…” she sank her face in her hands. “Some of us will not survive.”

Wind rattled the casement: the candles spluttered, the flames bowing low, almost dying. Meracad put her hands to Hal’s and peeled her fingers from her face. Her skin felt like ice. “And you won’t do them any good without sleep, Hal. Come to bed.”

“No! Sleep if you wish.” Hal jerked her way free of Meracad’s touch and folded her arms. “I have to think!”

“You won’t help anyone by punishing yourself like this.”

“Meracad! Please!”

Meracad turned, slamming the door in frustration as she left the chamber. Hannac had become a very lonely place since Leda left for Dal Reniac and Hal had begun to wear herself to death with worry. She felt her way back down the stairs. It was not that she didn’t fear for the future too. She saw desperation in the tenants’ eyes. And there had been no word from Dal Reniac for two weeks. What if, in spite of Marc’s precautions, the city was about to starve too? Leda was so young and inexperienced. But Hal’s silence, her coldness – that was no solution. It were as if she had retreated into herself, like a crab into its shell. This wasn’t the Hal she knew or loved, who filled Hannac with her frenetic energy, her mad, impulsive ideas, her zest for life.

Burning brands lit the corridor below. Grateful for the light, Meracad passed along it to the bedroom and sank down amongst layers of blankets and furs, warmth creeping back into her frozen fingers. She lay for sometime, aware always of the empty space beside her, and of the wind moaning outside. And she thought of Hal, alone upstairs, straining as she peered at the words and numbers in her ledgers, trying to balance them.

When Meracad opened her eyes again, a pale, weak light was struggling through the drapes. She must have fallen asleep, but recalled no dreams, and her head swam with tiredness. The bed was still empty.

Her limbs felt stiff and cold as she rose, wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and padded barefoot  back up the stairs, aware of Hannac now stirring into life, of mutterings and murmurs floating up from the great hall and courtyard. This time, she didn’t knock. Pressing down the handle, Meracad slid quietly into the chamber, and sighed. As she had expected, Hal now slept, slumped across the desk, her hair half covering her face. The candles had burnt themselves out, one having dripped wax onto the sleeve of her greatcoat.

“Perfect. If we don’t starve, we’ll burn.” Meracad almost succumbed to tears, but held them back. That wouldn’t help. Biting her lip, she edged around the desk and laid a hand on Hal’s shoulder, shaking her awake. “What were you thinking of, falling asleep up here with all these candles still alight?”

“Meracad?” Hal peeled herself off the desk and stared wildly around the room, as if it were the first time she’d seen it. At last she slipped her arms around Meracad’s waist, pulling her close.

“Hal.” It seemed ever harder to say the words. “We will survive.”

Leda – A Short Extract

A short extract from Leda, book three in The Duellist series. Hal is haunted by a series of terrifying dreams and discovers that the real enemy lies within, not without.

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That dream again. This time, Hal found herself buried beneath the streets of Colvé, a crowd of people thundering over the cobbles above her head. The ground shook to the thump of their feet, the earth above her head muted the chaos of their voices. And, of course, she could not move. She twisted, squirmed, moaned, her mouth filling with dirt. She was choking: every breath desperate, painful and exhausting.

“Hal!” From somewhere above her came Meracad’s faint, muffled voice. Struggling, Hal realised she could no longer open her mouth, that her arms were pinioned to her sides.

“Hal!” Meracad’s voice was louder now, but still too far away for help. They had lost each other. Perhaps, Hal thought, she had died already – that Meracad was calling to her from beyond the grave. That made her weep.

“Hal!”

She woke with a gasp, a sudden rush of damp night air filling her lungs, the room swinging and swaying around her head. Hal sucked in every breath with hunger, her body drenched in a cold film of sweat and every muscle and tendon, every last fibre of her being shaking. She sat, drew her knees up to her chest, and buried her face in her hands.

“Hal, what is it…what do you dream of?” Meracad slipped her arms around Hal’s shoulders and drew her close. Her skin smelt warm and carried a light, honeyed fragrance. Hal surrendered to her embrace.

“I dream…” but how could she explain the thud of feet above her head, the weight of earth as it crushed and paralysed, starving her of breath? For in truth, that was never the worst part of the dream at all. “I dream that you’ve gone,” she whispered at last.

 

Leda – ‘The Duellist’ Part Three on Wattpad

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. Her distant cousin Castor has claimed the imperial throne, instigating a reign of terror. And famine stalks the Nests, forcing Hal and Meracad to sacrifice all that they hold dear. Will Leda be strong enough to return peace to these troubled lands? Find out in Leda, the final part of The Duellist Trilogy.

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

 

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Finally, Hal’s back! I’ve started publishing the final part of ‘The Duellist’ trilogy on Wattpad, and of course, once it’s complete and edited, it will be available on Amazon. So here’s the prologue to whet your appetite.

Hal and Hannac are both currently available on Amazon:

Hal: http://geni.us/B00TQCH4VQ/

Hannac: http://geni.us/B00U4W40LY/

 

PROLOGUE: A HOOP OF GOLD

The air was heavy, stale and scented sweetly with death. Sodden with sweat, Castor’s silken shirt and breeches stuck to his chest and thighs. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. This was all so unbearable. Why wouldn’t the old bastard just admit defeat? Diodiné seemed intent on clinging to life as he had clung to his throne. Drawing in each last breath with hoarse, desperate rasps, the Emperor’s withered frame shivered beneath mounds of quilts and blankets as he coughed and wheezed but would not, the spirits damn him, die.

Half curious, half revulsed, Castor stretched out a hand and touched his Uncle’s forehead. The old man’s skin was as rough as leather, as chill as the marble floors of the palace, and filmed with sweat. Recoiling, Castor wiped his fingers on his shirt and rose.

It was far too humble a room for such a royal man to die in, with its plain, whitewashed walls and pallet bed, its stained carpet and threadbare drapes which let in a slim sliver of moonlight. But then that was how Diodiné had chosen to die, having caught, in his final fever, a religious zeal that he had singly lacked in life. On the promise of a seat amongst the demigods, the Emperor had displayed a sudden hatred of luxury: of the court and all its trappings, of grand salons and lush gardens. Instead, he had withdrawn to a mere cell: a forgotten room in a forgotten wing of the palace, admitting no one to his bedside. No one but that wretched bunch of priests who turned up once a day to choke the air with incense, and chant dirges over his fading frame. That was before Castor had reminded his Uncle’s would be guardians that Diodiné having one foot in the grave meant that his nephew had one buttock on the throne. Their resistance crumbled. He cajoled, he threatened: they let him in. Too weak to protest, Diodiné was forced to endure his presence. And so Castor’s lonely bedside vigil was fused with the sweetness of revenge. Because all his Uncle’s sly, dry insults, the half-muttered barbs, the raised eyebrows, smirks and withering looks – they still cut and wounded. But those harsh words and disdain would die along with Diodiné. And then, rising like a new sun over a corrupt, cankered empire, he, Castor, would usher in a fresh era of greatness.

Diodiné had tolerated dissent, had allowed feuds to fester like open wounds, had played off one noble house against the next, granting concessions, fraternising where he should have ruled. But no such decadence would stain the reign of Castor, third of that name. The entire empire would jump to his command, from the lowliest crofter to the most powerful of nobles. He would expand its borders, would bring the Yegdanian barbarians to heel at last, would finally extract true fealty from the North…

A long, racking, phlegm-inflected cough issued from the bed. Irritated, his reverie of power and greatness shattered, Castor paced the room once again before stopping beside an alcove. A crystal decanter and goblet rested on a shelf in its shadows: a treasure he’d smuggled in when the priests’ backs were turned. Well, he was a man after all: could hardly be expected to endure such grief without some kind of balm for his nerves.

But as he reached for the glass, his knuckles brushed against something else which lay, tucked away in the shadows on the shelf. Something cold to the touch and hard. He prised it from its hiding place and held it to the light: a slim circlet of gold-forged laurel leaves. For all his rejection of worldly needs, Diodiné had clearly failed to part with his crown.

Castor stepped back into the room, turning the burnished coil over and over in his hands, imagining all the imperial heads upon which it had rested. And now it was almost his! Just a single breath was all that rested between him and greatness: a final, fading heart beat, a slow glazing of the eyes. So close! And that being the case, how could it hurt?

Closing his eyes, he indulged in the mental image of his coronation: the nobility gathered on one side of the imperial temple, senators on the other. His mother, brother and the soon to be dowager Empress, his aunt, seated at their head, watching proudly. The streets of Colvé thronged with cheering crowds…solemnly, slowly, he lowered the crown upon his own head.

“I’m not dead yet, you know, boy.”

Castor froze, his hands still raised to his forehead, a yelp of surprise and irritation catching in his throat. He slipped the crown off with furious haste, stowing it back on its shelf in the alcove.

“I know that, Uncle,” he said, smiling so tight it hurt. He inched back towards the bed, bent over and peered with feigned concern into Diodiné’s rheum-ridden eyes.

“Then why were you playing Emperor?”

“I don’t know what you mean, Sir.”

“You know very well what you were doing. And it’s still not too late to unmake you my heir.” The words came out as if from some old squeeze box, accompanied with wheezes and rasps. “Your brother Josen has twice your intelligence and charm. Your only saving grace is that you’re a year older than him.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

There they were. Hovering on death’s threshold, those little cuts and barbs still slipped out. Almost as if his dying wish was to strip his nephew of all self-respect: to gnaw away at his ambition until he formally renounced his claim and passed his entire birthright onto his brother. And in the past, Diodiné might have succeeded in shaking Castor’s resolve. Now, his insults only served to strengthen it. He dropped to one knee at the old man’s side, leant forward, his lips almost brushing the Emperor’s ear. “No. You’re not dead yet, Uncle. But you will be. Soon.”

From distant corners of Colvé, the night bells rang out the late hour. Diodiné’s lips parted as he strained to reply. But what issued was a long series of spluttering coughs, each followed by a desperate bid for breath. Castor dabbed delicately at the blood and spittle which flecked his Uncle’s lips with a handkerchief. He was a patient man, after all. He could wait.