Howard Andrew Jones' powerful world-building brings this epic fantasy to life in For The Killing of Kings, the first book of his new adventure-filled trilogy.
Their peace was a fragile thing, but it had endured for seven years, mostly because the people of Darassus and the king of the Naor hordes believed his doom was foretold upon the edge of the great sword hung in the hall of champions. Unruly Naor clans might raid across the border, but the king himself would never lead his people to war so long as the blade remained in the hands of his enemies.
But when squire Elenai’s aging mentor uncovers evidence that the sword in their hall is a forgery she’s forced to flee Darassus for her life, her only ally the reckless, disillusioned Kyrkenall the archer. Framed for murder and treason, pursued by the greatest heroes of the realm, they race to recover the real sword, only to stumble into a conspiracy that leads all the way back to the Darassan queen and her secretive advisors. They must find a way to clear their names and set things right, all while dodging friends determined to kill them – and the Naor hordes, invading at last with a new and deadly weapon.
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The Numbered Day
Asrahn halted before the tall glass case with the long straight sword, withdrew a key from his pocket, and set it to the lock. As Squire Elenai shifted uncomfortably in the cavernous display hall behind him the stocky Master of Squires wondered again if he should have undertaken the matter alone.
No. He wouldn't be furtive. He'd act before a witness, then tell the commander what he'd done.
He studied the sword as he turned the key. Even under dim light from high windows, obscured by a shameful coat of dust, N'lahr's blade had a distinctive blue sheen. Irion's only true ornament was an azure sapphire set in its hilt, and Asrahn well remembered that its former wielder had to be coaxed to permit that "useless ostentation." N'lahr would have objected to the gaudy red velvet behind the weapon, let alone the gilt pegs supporting each guard arm, assuming he'd ever have consented to allowing the great sword decommissioned for display.
Even if he had, he'd never have allowed Irion neglected. Asrahn had repeatedly pressed that point with his commanding officer, but Denaven had insisted no one touch the blade until a worthy successor emerged from the ranks. As N'lahr had been a military genius, that was likely to be a very long time.
Thus, in the seven years since N'lahr's death, the sword had grown more and more dingy. A ragged filament of spider silk languidly waved from the pommel to the cabinet's lock as Asrahn removed the key. He'd resigned himself to the situation mostly by avoiding the oak-framed case, visiting it only under special circumstances. Because the annual celebration of N'lahr's greatest victory would once again bring crushes of admiring citizens to the Hall of Heroes, today had been one of those times.
The veteran felt his blood rise as he looked again at the little teeth marks he'd noticed earlier this morning marring the old leather grip. Altenerai squires were forbidden to touch the weapon, but mice could nibble it with impunity? He'd served as Master of Squires under four commanders, a position demanding not only a thorough familiarity with the rules and traditions of the Altenerai Corps, but a commitment to instill those values in his charges by living them. He hadn't disobeyed an order since his squire days. Yet this wanton neglect of a heroic icon was a stain upon the corps, and a blot upon the memory of N'lahr, his friend and finest pupil. It could no longer be endured.
He opened the door and reached for the hilt. The faint scent of old leather and a stale musty odor emanating from the velvet attended his intrusion.
Asrahn fully meant to lift the sword from its display pegs and immediately place it within the sheath Elenai had brought from storage. But as his fingers wrapped those weathered leathers he paused.
There would never be another opportunity like this. Maybe advancing age was making him incautious, but ... Could there be any harm in hefting Irion for a few moments, before it was returned to those same pegs, probably forever?
The dusty steel caught in a slanting sunbeam as he raised it level in the lonely marble hall.
His voice, roughened through years of calling commands across drill fields, betrayed neither hesitation nor expectancy. "Give me space."
Elenai backed off, eyes wide. Probably she wondered if he'd grown mad, or senile.
Perhaps he had. He grinned fiercely as he advanced into the opening stance of his favorite sword form.
As Master of Squires for thirty years, weapon forms were as natural to Asrahn as breathing. The click of his bootheels on the inlaid granite floor echoed from walls hung with storied weapons and tapestries of famous battles, and his own high-necked armored robe — the famed blue knee-length khalat of the Altenerai Corps — swayed with his steps. Hard-used knees creaked on his advance and shoulders strained to perform smoothly, but he was used to feeling that. What he didn't feel was the joy.
He grew more and more curious as he stepped through the form. The blade was balanced, true, and light. Yet something was wrong.
A twinge of pain passed through his calf, and he drew to a stop after the final flourish, setting his hand against the cool blue-marbled wall.
Elenai stepped forward. "Are you all right, Alten?"
"I'm fine, Squire." His voice was sharper than he intended. Again he lifted the blade and considered its length. Its heft. Its edge. It looked right, yes. Absolutely right. Every nick and stain that he remembered was visible in its metal.
Yet it wasn't right. This wasn't N'lahr's sword.
His heart raced on, not with exertion but panic. What if the Naor had stolen the real one years ago and replaced it with a fake? No ... putting aside the unlikelihood of enemies penetrating the heart of Darassus and the halls of the Altenerai, if they had the sword they'd have marched across the border. It was the one object their superstitious king feared — a prophet had foretold Mazakan would die only on that blade's edge. Besides, Asrahn was fairly certain the Naor lacked the skill to produce such a duplicate.
Maybe this sword was an authorized copy, with the real one in protective storage.
Except that made no sense. Asrahn's eyes swept upward to Alvor's blackened axe. All of the other old weapons on display here were authentic. His gaze raked the bows, halberds, and blades meticulously placed around the hall between banners, paintings, and other illustrations of the realms' defense. Why house Irion anywhere else? Why deceive not only the squires who tended this display, but the Altenerai themselves? Surely Commander Denaven had to have tired of Asrahn complaining about the sword's condition. He could have confided the truth and avoided a halfdozen confrontations.
Unless Denaven didn't know.
Asrahn swallowed, for his throat was suddenly dry. Suppose the Naor clans were to learn the weapon was missing? It might be all the inspiration they needed to swarm from their dismal outer lands and try again for the realms, weakened after seven years of neglect and misrule.
"Sir?" Elenai prompted.
He'd almost forgotten she was there.
Elenai was garbed in a calf-length hauberk, similar in shape to his own khalat but constructed of heavy interlocking plates beneath a gray surcoat.
He almost confided in her. A squire of the fifth rank, she was ready to test for the sixth, the final level before joining the champions of the Allied Realms, equals without peer. She had talent and drive and discipline. And compassion as well, evident in the concern visible in her wide gray eyes.
But he'd broken enough strictures today. He straightened, still favoring his right leg. He wouldn't alarm her any more.
"The sheath, if you please." He forced a respectable calm.
She passed it to him, watching as he slid the sword home. It was a fair fit, if a little wide. She blinked in surprise as he handed the weapon to her.
He'd planned to care for Irion himself, with her assisting. But it wasn't Irion. He couldn't very well return the sword just now, after the big show he'd put on; that would leave her with even more questions. There could be no harm in her repairing the wrong sword though. He exerted effort to sound steady.
"See that the weapon's properly cared for," he instructed. "Replace the leathers." He bent to retrieve a slim brown cloth sack with handpicked materials he'd set down earlier. "You can use the table in the records room, but keep the work to yourself."
Elenai took the sack but paid it no heed, for she fairly goggled at the weapon in her right hand, holding it out from her as though it were a fragile glass construct she feared to drop; then she sought his eyes once more.
"I'll meet you back here before nine bells."
"Yes, sir." She looked once more down at the sword, then back at him. She seemed to want reassurance.
So did everyone. But at the moment he had none to give. "I've other duties to attend to. Farewell, Squire." He turned and strode back to the case. As he closed and locked it, he heard her footsteps recede into the south corridor. He looked once to the massive cedar doors leading to the Hall of Remembrance, then turned into the west corridor, the polished gray and blue stone pillars sliding past regularly.
If Irion had been moved by someone in the court other than Denaven, there was one person who might know.
Sareel, the longtime Keeper of Keys, had given access to Irion's case the previous hour with a quirked eyebrow of surprise. Asrahn guessed she'd have pressed with impertinent curiosity if she weren't so busy. It took almost three-quarters of an hour to track her down this time. Like many in the palace complex, Sareel was harried and cross owing to the influx of visitors for the three-day celebration that began tomorrow. Her staff in particular was spread thin, for they were tasked with decorating rooms and passages normally kept empty or minimally adorned.
He found the woman in a rear parlor off the Grand Hall, bent over a book of inventories, holding it close to a large lamp while three of her assistants fussed with the top of a dusty wooden crate. It was strange to see her so gray and lined, a reminder of the long years they had held their posts. It seemed only yesterday that she had been a pretty, sharp-eyed thing that Tretton had courted.
She saw Asrahn as he approached, and straightened at her table, blinking. When he asked if Irion had a duplicate, she looked at him as though he were demented.
"No. Of course not. Why do you ask?" Her tone was more cutting than usual.
He would have to be careful how he proceeded. He didn't want to spread alarm unduly. "Has Irion ever been stored anywhere else?"
Her brow furrowed. "What's this about, Asrahn?
He thought quickly and pulled himself a bit higher. "That sword's a national symbol, an inspiration. I simply want to ensure it's been handled correctly."
Sareel sighed and Asrahn realized she took his inquiry as a punctilious drill of some sort. "As you well know, the actual article's been hanging on the wall, properly labeled, ever since N'lahr got dropped into his marble box."
It was Asrahn's turn to furrow his brow at her callous words as she continued.
"And I'm the Keeper of Keys, so I should know. All those artifacts are in order, unlike these damnable staircase urns." She scowled down at her book to end the interaction, then looked up as Asrahn turned to go. "Do you have the key?"
"I'll need to hold onto it a little longer. I can have it back to you before the night is out."
"Well, I'll apparently still be here," she said testily, "I have a few dozen hallways left, and no one but gaping fools to aid me." The assistants buzzed more intently as her voice rose in conclusion.
He left her, deeply troubled.
Was he imagining things? Maybe it was he who'd changed, not the sword. N'lahr was dead seven years, but Asrahn himself hadn't held the blade for nearly nine. Maybe he'd forgotten what it felt like.
Asrahn wished he could sound out Melagar about the matter, but his husband was still making finishing touches to a frieze in the temple of Darassa. He wouldn't be available for hours. And Tretton was on long patrol, helping to see to the safety of the pilgrims as they passed through the Shifting Lands. He'd be unlikely to know the answer, but it would be a comfort to confide in an old friend.
More than anything, he wanted Kalandra's advice. Her nimble intellect had always pierced straight through to the heart of any matter. Yet he'd had to go without her input for as long as he'd gone without N'lahr's.
His mouth tightened at the thought of her. So many now were dead and gone.
Resigned to no other possible solution, he turned his steps to the south palace wing, marked with less expensive but still skillfully arranged ceramic tiles, and stopped at Denaven's office, only to find his commanding officer absent. The second ranker on duty suggested several likely locations, but Denaven wasn't in any of them, so Asrahn returned before long. When the squire assured him the commander would check in prior to retiring for the evening, Asrahn drafted a terse note explaining his concern and requesting a meeting at eight bells, which gave him just over an hour. He sealed the message with wax and instructed the squire to pass it solely to the Altenerai commander.
The Gods only knew how Denaven would react. He'd probably be livid but Asrahn had expected a dressing down from the start. Hopefully, the commander would focus less on the insubordination and more on the greater matter at hand — but how would he weigh the unsolicited suspicions of an aging veteran? The commander seemed somewhat impatient with tradition of late. Not to mention oblivious to the precarious state of the borders. Yet surely the disappearance of Irion would alarm even him.
Lost in reflection, Asrahn slowly retraced his steps, traversing the length of the southern hall to return to the empty display.
He looked away from the darker pattern in the velvet where the blade had hung and considered the other treasures from centuries of Altenerai service: the arrow Kerwyn had plunged through the burning heart of a kobalin lord; the spear of Jessaymyr, bent with age though its blade remained sharp. Asrahn knew precisely how sharp, for as a squire he'd tended many of these weapons — just like today's squires tended all but N'lahr's. The black ax of Alvor remained mirror bright, and he paused to consider the broadened, shortened image of himself in its reflection.
He was old. Weighted with time. Perhaps Irion felt different because his strength had faded. Asrahn little resembled the heroic figure woven into a nearby tapestry. There he was, depicted beside blue-tinted Varama as she sank to her knees on the battlefield. Tall, broad shouldered, his short brown hair windblown, although in life he'd worn a helm that day. He, like the rest of the Altenerai, was artfully rendered in a dark blue khalat, belted at the waist, with a tiny bit of azure silk on his left hand to indicate the ring denoting his rank. All about the tableau were shattered lances and bodies of the slain, but the tapestry worker had placed these aspects in shadow, as though the Second Battle of Kanesh had taken place under stormy skies.
The work was titled The Fall of N'lahr, and it was long enough to have draped the great hero's coffin twice over. On the tapestry N'lahr lay more handsome dead than he'd been in life. Kyrkenall cradled his friend's head in his hands, his black eyes leaking linen tears, while other Altenerai and squires sat on horses in the background, their faces pale in exaggerated grief. N'lahr's dead hands still clasped the great sword that had led him again and again to impossible victories.
His death hadn't happened like that at all, but it made for an arresting picture. The wound that slew him had seemed a tiny thing.
But the lie to the scene didn't trouble Asrahn so much as did the image of the sword.
He turned from the tapestry, bootheels echoing along the marble foyer, and pulled open the oversized and overembellished cedar doors in the north wall. There had to be a reasonable explanation about what had happened to Irion.
He just hadn't thought of one yet.
He paused, letting his eyes adjust to the gloom. He breathed deeply the stale incense that always lingered in that vast shrine. Light from the sinking sun starkly lit the narrow windows, burnishing metal shoulders on the regularly spaced statuary and striping the planks of the parquet floors.
In the lighter days of his youth, the bronze renderings of Altenerai heroes had intimidated him, seeming to look down in judgment from their cool stone pedestals to find him wanting. Even after he'd earned the sapphire ring, necessitating his own cast semblance join theirs, he never lingered. But as more and more of his colleagues left the living world he'd found himself drawn to the sterile exhibit more and more frequently. He craved the counsel of the people they represented. He missed their company.
His heels beat a hollow rhythm as he entered, scanning the faces. There was bold, cunning Renik, his hand raised in greeting, long since vanished on one of the queen's mad errands. To his right was sad-eyed Rialla, dead the day after winning her ring, forgotten now by all but the few who'd risen through the ranks with her. How many of those were left?
He held off counting. As usual, he avoided consideration of his own simulacrum as he passed.
He had almost reached Kalandra, halfway down. Of all those lost to him, it was she whom he missed the most. Wise, capable, hers had always been a grounded, calming presence.
A man's voice rang through the chamber. "'Who dares to walk these halls while I yet live?'" Asrahn's heart sped and he pivoted, sun-wrinkled hands rising to a guard position, until he realized the words were quoted from the poet and playwright Selana, from her masterwork, The Rise of Myralon. And by that tone and timbre and certain exaggerated stage diction, the speaker could only be ... A smile crept unbidden to Asrahn's lips. One of the missing had returned. He looked left. "Kyrkenall?"
"Wrong way," called the voice, a warm tenor.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "For the Killing of Kings"
Copyright © 2019 Howard Andrew Jones.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. The Numbered Day,
2. A Changing World,
3. The Tower in the Snow,
4. Storm Ride,
5. A Dying Look,
6. The Emptied Tomb,
7. Seven Bottles,
8. Old Friends,
9. Semblance of Truth,
10. With Sword in Hand,
11. Record of Truths,
12. Dueling with the Truth,
13. Secrets in the Night,
14. Perfect Match,
15. The Forging,
17. Faces in the Storm,
18. Those Left Behind,
19. Time Alone,
20. First Flight,
21. The Rider on the Black Horse,
22. Ring Wearers,
23. Wind Rider,
24. A Fresher Look,
25. The Walls of Alantris,
26. Battles in the Dark,
Also by Howard Andrew Jones,
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