If you have already read my review for this book, then you know that I am not a fan of the cover and didn’t really expect much from it. Fortunately, my initial impression was wrong, which was something I noticed as soon as I started reading the book. Have look at the excerpt below and see if you’re not ready to snap this book up from Amazon and get busy reading.
But, before you get started, here is the summary:
A disinherited aristocrat, Halanya Thæc has been brought up in the confines of the imperial court, destined for a life of privilege and luxury. Yet Hal is happiest with a sword in her hand, and forsakes her status as ward to become a professional duellist, spending her days in training, her nights revelling, famed for her prowess in the capital’s duelling arena.
All of that changes when Hal falls in love with Meracad Léac, the freedom-craving daughter of a wealthy 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.
Chapter One: The Duellist
With a sudden roar the crowd erupted, the duelling arena resounding to the clink and ring of money exchanging hands as bets were paid. Hal sank in exhaustion, her knees making painful contact with the splintered wood of the duelling circle. The arena’s high arched roof broke into a dizzying spin above her, and she almost vomited with fatigue. Her opponent staggered away, collapsing amongst the jeering groups of spectators. She eyed his burly mass as they hauled him upright. What the Easterner had lacked in skill, he more than made up for in strength. Gathering her final reserves of energy, Hal struggled to her feet, slumping down once more on the edge of The Circle, its arched edge digging into the backs of her legs. Why did Beric always pit her against such giants?
A cadet hovered before her, clutching a flagon of water to his chest. She nodded to him, seized the vessel from his hands, and gulped down the contents in long, thirsty draughts. Dragging her arm across her eyes she wiped them free of sweat, and scanned the room. The buzz of conversation slowly died away as spectators filed out, and from the back of the hall, someone called down to her:
“Thought he had you for a minute there, girl!”
Hal twisted around to observe the man who was now threading his way between empty seats and benches towards her ‒ a tall, slim figure darkly clad in senatorial robes. She barely managed a nod as Senator Marc Remigius approached the circle and beamed down at her. Aging with little dignity, Marc exuded an energy which never seemed to desert him. The greying tips of his hair were always lightly powdered, as was his face, once handsome features now creased with wrinkles. She continued to drink, too drained to reply. He frowned, lowering himself onto the platform beside her.
Hal’s thoughts were finally clearing, her heart no longer hammering against the walls of her ribcage. She contemplated his suggestion.
“Where did you have in mind?”
“My place? I’ve been looking for an excuse to organise a party for some time now. You just handed me the opportunity.”
“Really, Marc, you don’t need an excuse for that. Besides, your ‘surprise’ parties always seem to attract an indecent number of people.”
“Hal Thæc, you may doubt my sincerity, but you can never deny my capacity to entertain. I’ll be expecting you at eight. In the meantime, I suggest you bathe.”
She sighed, knowing full well that her friend would accept no excuse.
“I’ll think about it.”
“I know you will.”
Both rose, Hal with some difficulty. The Senator headed out for the city streets with the remaining spectators as she crossed the arena to greet her duelling master, Beric Thælda, who was studying the tally of bets with satisfaction.
“Well Hal, looks like you’ve done us proud today, girl.” She winced as he squeezed her shoulder beneath a bear-like paw. Unlike Marc, Beric was incapable of gentleness or subtlety. His silvery hair and beard gave him an unnervingly metallic appearance which, combined with brutish strength made him an intimidating character. That was, at least, how the young cadets in his duelling academy saw him. But Hal had learned long ago that beneath the rough exterior lurked a paternal spirit, if not a soft heart.
“You know,” he continued, “I was a mite worried in that last round, girl. Tiring were you?” He leant forward, his eyes narrowing to slits as he scrutinised her. Hal looked away.
“I won. That’s all that matters, isn’t it?”
“No, lass, as I’ve told you many times: style can make or break a good fight, especially as far as the punters are concerned. Now, I suppose you’ll be wanting your prize money?”
“The thought had crossed my mind.”
“Half for you, half for me, right?” He leaned back again, a tight, provocative smile concealed beneath his brindled moustache.
“As always.” Tired and irritated, Hal was in no mood for banter.
“Very well. Don’t go throwing it away like the last time. I won’t be bailing you out again before the next fight.”
“Beric, please just give me the cursed money, I’m tired.” Crossing her arms she glared at him, aware of how much pleasure he derived from dragging out these little deals.
Beric shook his head, unoffended, and handed her the winnings.
“There you go, just give me another such success in your next duel.”
“Your confidence in my abilities is overwhelming, Beric.” Snatching the bag of coins from his outstretched hand, she turned to go.
“And your respect for your elders and betters is the talk of the town, girl.” She stopped, contemplating a response, but then thought better of it. The prospect of quarrelling with Beric was not an appealing one. Instead, she made her weary way across the arena, aware that she had just granted another victory to the old master.
A very small part of her conceded that he was right. Sometimes vanity got the better of her and she flaunted her skills instead of reserving her strength. Only the previous month her opponent had sliced open her arm as she attempted to somersault across the circle. Beric had been furious.
“I can see you don’t need any more training,” he’d yelled, “when you’re prepared to throw away a duel for the sake of looking like a damned acrobat!”
Although she would never have admitted it, the reprimand had remained with her during this fight, As the Easterner had swung, blocked and parried she focussed upon his weaknesses, using his own strength against him to bring him down. Not such spectacular fighting, but certainly more effective. The last thing she wanted was another armful of Beric’s crooked stitching.
Doors on the far side of the arena opened onto public baths, the women’s divided from the men’s by a thin partition wall. Pulling off her boots, Hal gasped as her feet encountered the cool chill of marble. The sound of water lapping at the walls of the pool seemed to have a calming effect on nerves still frayed after the duel. A small group of women bathed and gossiped, releasing occasional cascades of laughter around the stone chamber. Recognising one or two of them from the palace, Hal decided against joining them. Few courtiers ever acknowledged her with more than a stiff, cold nod.
Hal stripped, leaving her clothes in a pile, and lowered her body into the water, aware of the sly glances the women threw her, their curiosity overcoming disdain. She slid from sight beneath the surface, only too aware of strange figure she must cut: boyish grace combined with an athletic physique, intense blue eyes contrasting with a pale, almost white complexion. City-dwellers saw little of the sun. With a gasp, she rose again to stand at waist height in the water, raking wet fingers through cropped, coal-black hair. Finally, allowing herself to sink lower, she leant her head against the pool’s edge, sensing the sweat and vigour of the fight drain out into the water. The women lost interest and resumed their chatting, leaving Hal alone to debate with herself whether she had strength enough for the Senator’s celebration.
It was early summer. The evening had taken on a slightly hazed appearance as the sun wound its way downwards, yet the city seemed to resonate with excitement: the commerce of the day exchanged for the entertainments and pleasures of the night. While some citizens scurried home, others were evidently heading for masked balls, parties or concerts. Hal made her way amongst the groups of revellers, exchanging the occasional nod with an acquaintance but in general attempting to steer clear of prying eyes.
She had bathed and felt more refreshed, hoping that the fresh linen shirt and leather trousers she now wore made her appear more respectable. But the constant ache in the pit of her stomach was a reminder of how much Hal dreaded such occasions. Lacking the natural social graces of her friend, she found it difficult to appear relaxed and carefree when faced with his distinguished guests. And as the burble of conversation and laughter drifted down the street towards her, her stomach lurched and she almost turned back.
Marc’s town house was a tall, free standing building surrounded by a high-walled garden. Topiary birds fronted the terrace, which led to a sweeping semi-circle of steps. All three floors of the building were lined with rows of high, latticed windows, and the roof was decorated with ornate statues: ostentatious touches which Marc had added to improve the grandeur of the place.
Realising how late she already was, Hal bounded along the terrace and found the doors to the main salon thrown wide open. She craned back her neck, taking in the grand scale and spectacle of the party. A wooden gallery ran beneath the entire length of the ornate ceiling, enabling guests to group along it and gaze down at the swaying pairs of dancers, as the court’s finest musicians entertained from a corner of the room.
Servants swarmed around her, overladen with arrangements of food on silver platters, or carrying crystalline pitchers of wine. Hal caught her breath a little. Her friend had truly surpassed himself.
Someone tapped her on the shoulder and she span round to face the Senator. Marc was dressed in a long silver frock coat threaded with gold brocade at its cuffs and collar, his hair and face delicately powdered. He could easily have passed for the Emperor himself.
“Late as usual.” He shook his head in mock disapproval. “For that, I’m afraid; you’re going to have to dance.”
“Marc, you know I can’t.” What was he thinking of? “Anyway, I’m tired. I only came out of courtesy.”
“Really?” He raised an eyebrow. “I saw the way you leaped up those steps. Don’t even begin to pretend that you’re so far above us lesser mortals you don’t enjoy a good party when you see one.”
Hal laughed. “Fine, I’ll dance, once I’ve seen the quality of your guests. Last time you just invited a bunch of second-rate hangers-on from the court!”
Marc threw her an indulgent smile. “I don’t think you’ll find them lacking. Allow me to introduce you to one or two of them.”
He led her on a precarious course between dancing couples towards two wealthy looking women and a short, round, well-dressed man, who were talking animatedly to each other ‒ or at each other. Hal couldn’t tell.
“I would like you to meet Master Braint, an eminent merchant from the East, his wife and sister. Ladies, Master Braint, this is the renowned duellist, Halanya Thæc.”
“I know,” Braint returned, with a hint of bitterness.
“Oh really?” Marc sounded surprised. “Have you met before?”
“No, I just lost a lot of money betting on her opponent in the fight today.”
“Ah.” Marc looked at his feet. The conversation ground to an awkward halt.
Hal offered them a thin smile. “Well, you’ll know who to bet on next time, won’t you?”
“In my opinion,” Braint’s wife began, “The Duelling Circle is not a place for…”
“Yes, let’s be moving on, shall we?” Marc caught hold of her elbow. “Come along Hal, there are so many people I’d like you to meet.”
He whisked her away. Braint, and the two women remained silent for a few brief moments and she held her breath, sensing their glares. Eventually their conversation picked up again, louder and more frantic than before.
“What the devil did you have to say that for?” asked Marc in agitation. “You stirred them up. Could you not be more diplomatic occasionally?”
“Very well,” Hal sighed in resignation. “For you, Marc, I can be diplomatic. I can start being diplomatic with that girl over there.”
“What girl, where?”
“That one who’s watching us. Who’s she?”
Marc followed her gaze across the room to where a young woman was stood alone by a window, her light-brown eyes flecked with amusement as she took furtive sips from a glass of wine. The simple cut of her black dress contrasted with her fair hair, which was twisted intricately about her head, caught in a knot at the nape of her neck. Hal noted a certain defensive pride in the girl’s eyes, in the way she kept herself at a distance from the party.
“Well, Hal, that is definitely someone you do not want to talk to, diplomatically or otherwise.”
“Why not?” Marc repeated Hal’s question, his voice edged with disbelief. “I’ll tell you why not. Her name is Meracad and she just happens to be the daughter of Master Salius Léac, one or our great city’s most esteemed burghers. That’s him over there.”
He nodded in the direction of a burly man in his fifties who was drinking heartily with a group of merchants. Their peals of coarse laughter struck the air. Prime examples, Hal recognised, of the new money which was beginning to challenge the authority of the court.
“Now, to you and me,” Marc continued, his tone laced with sarcasm, “he may appear a brutish oaf, but in fact beneath that somewhat bullish exterior lies the ingenious mind of a brilliant and utterly ruthless man of business. So ruthless, in fact, that his daughter, Meracad, is pretty much the financial jewel in his crown.”
She stared at him in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“What I mean is that, when the occasion arises, he will almost certainly sell her to the highest bidder in order to secure the business deal of his dreams.”
“What a bastard.”
“Maybe, Hal, you did not express that quite as elegantly as I would have done, but in not so many words, you hit the very nail upon its head; which is every reason for you to stay away from both him and his daughter. Anyway, she’s not your type.”
“And how would you know about that?”
“Hal, there was gossip about your latest entanglement from here to the city gates. Scullery maid in the court kitchens, wasn’t it? Freckles, curly hair…”
“Yes, alright, there’s no need to go on. Anyway, I’ve no intention of going to speak to her when she’s coming over here instead.”
“Oh God!” Marc groaned, as the girl began to pace towards them in a graceful arc. “Her father will have me by the testicles. The only purpose in her being here tonight is so that Leac may show her off to his business associates .” Marc nodded toward the group of men gathered around Meracad’s father.
Meracad reached them and inclined her head in a polite nod. “Well, Senator,” she began, “you never told me that you played host to such famous guests at your parties. This is, I believe, Hal Thæc?”
“I am. And the Senator here has just been informing me as to your own identity. Meracad Léac, I believe?”
“That’s correct. I heard that your duelling today was spectacular. I’m pleased you won.”
“In that case, I’m please to have entertained.”
“I shall have to come to more of your parties, Senator.” She turned away from them for a moment and then looked back, her brow creased with worry. “I believe my father wishes to speak to me. I’m sorry, please excuse me.”
“Of course.” Hal peered across the room at Meracad’s father. A scowl drawn across his face, he stared back at her.
Marc gulped down an entire glass of wine in haste as the girl left them to re-join Leac.
“Oh come on Marc, you don’t mean to tell me you of all people are scared of an old brute like that?” joked Hal.
“I’m not scared of him, Hal Thæc,” Marc replied gravely. “I’m scared for you.”
If you enjoyed this excerpt, then I suggest picking up the book from Amazon.