We’re delighted to share with you the first chapter of Tyrant’s Throne by Sebastien de Castell. Aren’t you all so lucky?!
Tyrant’s Throne, the 4th book in the Greatcoats series, will be published on 20th April 2017 in the UK and 6th June 2017 in the USA. And even better – if you preorder the book and send us proof, you can receive The Secrets of the Greatcoats, an exclusive collection of never-before-seen information about the world of the Greatcoats, including the final letters King Paelis wrote to our three heroes Falcio, Kest and Brasti. For more details, see here.
But if you can’t wait that long, we have a little extract to tide you over. If you thought Falcio, Kest and Brasti were the only ones getting themselves into trouble in the name of justice, you were wrong. Meet Chalmers, otherwise known as the King’s Question. She’s great at insults, not so great at sword fighting and a Greatcoat through-and-though (and don’t you dare say otherwise!).
THE WEDDING PLAY
A trial is a performance, no different than a stage play or a wedding. The script may be dramatic or dull, the players captivating or hesitant, the spectators enraptured or bored, but by the time the curtain falls, everyone gets up to leave knowing that the conclusion was never really in doubt. The trick, of course, is figuring out the ending before it’s too late.
‘I don’t suppose any of you gutless rat-faced canker-blossoms would like to surrender?’ The young woman in the travel-worn leather coat was armed with nothing but a foul tongue and a broken cutlass that she swung in wide, desperate arcs as more than a dozen guardsmen closed in on her. Step by step they drove her back with the points of their castle-forged swords, until she was forced to duck behind the yardarm of the main mast.
‘We can’t see!’ a nobleman called out from his seat at one of the tables set at the rear of the wedding barge’s vast deck.
‘This isn’t a play, you fools!’ she shouted back. ‘I’m a Greatcoat! A Magister of Tristia, here to enforce a lawful verdict – and just to be quite clear, these swords being waved at me? They’re not props – these men are going to kill me!’
‘She doesn’t look like a proper Greatcoat to me,’ Lady Rochlan observed to the man in livery refilling her wine goblet. ‘Her coat is far too shabby – and that hair! Honestly, it looks as if she cuts it herself.’
‘And without the benefit of scissors, it would appear, my Lady,’ the servant added.
Lady Rochlan smiled, then asked, ‘Are you quite all right, young man? You look a trifle seasick.’
‘Quite all right, I assure you, my Lady. I merely . . . Pardon me.’ The servant ran to the back of the barge just in time to vomit over the side and into the calm river waters below, drawing chuckles from nearby guests who wondered aloud how anyone could be seasick without even being at sea.
Still backing away from her pursuers, the Greatcoat growled in frustration. ‘Step aside!’ she commanded the guardsmen. ‘By the laws set forth by King Paelis and reconsecrated by his heir, Aline the First, withdraw, or face me one by one in the duelling circle where I’ll gladly teach you the first rule of the sword.’ The threatening tone she had adopted was sadly undermined both by her obvious youth and by the way her blade trembled in her hand.
The guardsmen maintained their slow, patient approach, and even the seasick servant shuffling behind them in search of more wine for the guests could sense their excitement. The chance to kill a Greatcoat, to be forever remembered as one of those few who’d brought one of the legendary sword-wielding magistrates to a bloody end? That was enough to make any man reckless. But these were Guardsmen of the March of Barsat, disciplined soldiers one and all, and so they awaited their master’s order to strike with the forbearance of Saints.
A soft laugh broke through the tension. Evidalle, Margrave of Barsat, began speaking in tones so light they might have been the opening notes of a love song. ‘I believe, my Lady Greatcoat – how does one address a female magistrate, anyway? “Mistress Greatcoat”? Or perhaps “Madam Greatcoat”?’
She shook back a lock of reddish-brown hair that was threatening to fall into her eyes. ‘My name is Chalmers, also called the King’s Question.’
‘Chalmers? Odd name for a girl.’ Evidalle furrowed his smooth brow. ‘And did Paelis really refer to you as “the King’s Question”? I wonder, was his query perhaps, “If I were to dress a homely waif in man’s clothes and hand her a rusted blade, would she really be any worse than the rest of my tatter-cloaks?”’ The Margrave laughed heartily at his own joke. Like a pebble dropped in the middle of a pool, his mirth spread in waves, first to the guardsmen encircling the Greatcoat and then beyond, to the guests in their finery seated at their white and gold tables beneath the long ribbons of silver silk hung from the masts to celebrate the Margrave’s nuptials.
As if on cue, a beautiful Bardatti at the very front of the barge struck an opening chord on her guitar and led the three violinists beside her into a jaunty tune fit for the occasion. The guests – Lords, Daminas, Viscounts and other minor nobles, smiled and whispered conspiratorially to their companions as they luxuriated in the shade offered by the stiff white parasols held at careful angles against the afternoon sun by impeccably turned-out servants. Each noble had brought a Knight from their personal guard, both for protection and decoration, their livery proudly displaying their house colours and sigils as they stood at attention, stiff and silent as statues. Now even they began to laugh at the scene playing out before them.
The attending clerics, instantly recognisable by the robes of red or green or pale blue they wore to mark whichever God had, in theory at least, chosen them, smiled knowingly to each other – all save one, standing inconspicuously behind the others, his arms folded within his sleeves, wearing the grey rough-spun robes of an unchosen monk.
Only the servants kept their silence as they scurried between nobles and their Knights to bring plates of roast pig and poultry prepared by a small army of cooks working spits dripping hissing grease onto the flames below. One of the cooks’ assistants, apparently oblivious to the anxiety of his fellows, sliced morsels off the chickens turning on one of the spits and popped them into his mouth as he watched the events unfolding.
As the laughter settled down, the guardsmen’s eyes returned to the Greatcoat, anticipating the signal to strike – but the Margrave’s performance was only just beginning. ‘I believe, my dear “King’s Question”, that your unfortunate appellation may be to blame for your current predicament. You see, when the High Cleric of Baern asks whether the Gods or Saints have any cause to bar a marriage, it’s actually considered quite impolite to speak up.’
‘The Gods are dead,’ Chalmers said, ‘and so are the Saints, from what I’ve heard, and this wedding of yours is nothing more than a sham.’ She gestured at Lady Cestina, who stood silently by Evidalle, her eyes downcast, as they had been throughout the ceremony. ‘You had her true husband killed so you could marry her, and even now your soldiers hold her mother and father, beaten and bloody, prisoners in their own keep!’
The specificity of the accusations drew uncomfortable titters from the guests, some of whom were no longer entirely certain that what was taking place was the promised wedding play that usually accompanied a nobleman’s nuptials.
‘You forgot her sister, Mareina,’ Evidalle said. ‘Clever girl – she’s actually quite pretty, too. I’d considered her as an alternative to Lady Cestina but then she came at me with a knife, so . . . well, you know how that goes.’
‘She wastes away in a cage beneath the deck of this very barge, you bastard,’ the Greatcoat said. ‘You’re forcing Lady Cestina into marriage by threatening her own sister’s life!’
‘I am?’ Evidalle put on a show of shock and confusion as he turned and surveyed his guests. ‘You must all think me a truly wretched creature.’ He stepped gracefully to where the Lady Cestina was trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid notice and extended a well-manicured hand towards her. ‘My Lady? Is there any truth to this terrible accusation? Can it be possible that you do not wish to marry me?’
Lady Cestina, who might otherwise have been quite beautiful had her face not been a picture of fear, with smudged blue maschiera paints running from her eyes down to her chin, her long blonde hair wet where it stuck to her cheeks, accepted the Margrave’s hand.
‘No, my Lord,’ she whispered, ‘the accusations are false. I wish nothing more than to be your wife.’
‘You see?’ Evidalle said, turning back to the Greatcoat as if expecting her to agree that the matter had been amicably resolved. When she glared at him instead, he nodded sagely. ‘Ah, but of course the lovely Cestina might simply be saying this out of fear for her sister’s wellbeing, no?’ He turned back to his bride. ‘My dear, would you kiss me?’
‘Of . . . of course, my Lord.’ Lady Cestina leaned in towards the Margrave and kissed him. Everyone could see her lips were trembling.
Evidalle shook his head in mock dismay. ‘That won’t do at all, my darling. I fear our Lady Greatcoat will think you are simply pretending to love me – you must do better.’
The Lady Cestina looked around anxiously before kissing Evidalle again, this time pressing her lips hard against his, keeping them there a long time.
‘Better,’ Evidalle said, pulling away to smile at the audience, who gave a smattering of applause. He held up a hand to quiet them. ‘I think we can improve on it, though.’ His gaze returned to Cestina. ‘This time, use your tongue,’ he ordered, then asked sweetly, ‘Would you like that?’
The fear was joined by humiliation playing across her face. Her eyes were those of a rabbit caught in a trap. ‘Yes, my Lord . . . I would . . .’ Tentatively, she opened her mouth and extended her tongue to his lips.
Evidalle grinned and leaned back a bit, making her reach for him, to the ribald laughter of the crowd. After a moment he opened his mouth to receive her tongue.
‘Enough!’ the Greatcoat shouted. ‘Leave her be, damn you!’
Evidalle kept the peculiar kiss going a while longer before pulling away. ‘Enough?’ he asked the Greatcoat. ‘You do realise she’s going to be my wife, don’t you? We’ll soon be doing a great deal more than kissing. But perhaps you’re right . . .’
He turned back to the wedding guests. ‘My Lords and Ladies, has this demonstration of our love been enough for you, or do you require more evidence?’
For a moment the guests looked at each other in confusion, unsure of what response was expected. Evidalle stared at them and finally someone shouted, ‘Er . . . more—?’
At the Margrave’s approving nod this soon grew into a rousing chant, ‘Give us more! Give us more!’
The clerics stood placid and unmoving, the hems of their robes flapping in the breeze – all but the monk at the back, who had his eyes fixed on the guardsmen; he appeared to be examining each one in turn. The servants were doing their best to feign ignorance of what was going on, save one refilling a flagon of wine, who paused to scowl at the cook’s assistant who had stopped turning the spit but was still slicing pieces of chicken for himself.
The chanting grew in volume. ‘Give us more! Give us more!’
Evidalle gazed lovingly into his young bride’s eyes. ‘It seems our guests demand a grander gesture from us, Lady Cestina. We must provide them with a more . . . ah, complete demonstration of our love.’
The young woman’s eyes went wide as she finally worked out what was to come. Her lips parted and a single word came out, silent as a whisper to all but those nearby. ‘Please,’ she said. ‘Please—’
Margrave Evidalle laughed. ‘You see? She’s begging for it!’ He turned back to her. ‘Take off your dress.’
‘Please, no, not here,’ the Lady said, even as her hands, as though no longer under her control, began to undo the laces fastening the bodice of her wedding gown. ‘Please,’ she said again, each repetition carrying more trepidation, more desperation.
The curve of Evidalle’s lips remained the same, yet his smile grew dark, ugly, his eyes more intense. ‘Faster,’ he said, a hand already reaching out for her.
‘Touch her even once,’ Chalmers warned, her voice thick with rage, ‘and I swear by Saint Zaghev-who-sings-for-tears, those tits will be the last thing your fingers ever feel.’
‘Isn’t Saint Zaghev one of the dead ones?’ Evidalle asked, his expression turning from desire to mild annoyance. ‘I doubt he’ll do you much good now.’
The Greatcoat gave out a shout and swung her broken cutlass at the leg of the guardsman closest to her. The tip of the lightly curved blade was missing but the jagged end remained sharp enough that it gashed the man’s thigh, sending him tumbling onto his backside. Chalmers had already brought her blade back up in front of her and was swinging it wildly at the faces of the men nearest her, forcing them back. For a brief moment it almost looked like the young woman’s ferocity might break their line – until a long-limbed guard reached over her and struck the back of her head with the pommel of his sword. Two other guardsmen grabbed her arms and held on tight, rendering her as helpless as the woman she’d come to save.
The man whose leg Chalmers had cut got back on his feet, ripped the blade from her hand and tossed it to the deck. He drew his own thin-bladed dagger and pressed it against her throat.
The Margrave gave a small cough and the guard froze. He dropped to his knees immediately. ‘Forgive me, my Lord. I was—’
‘It’s perfectly understandable,’ Evidalle said, waving him away. ‘At times like these one can sympathise with the overwhelming desire for immediate . . . gratification.’ Evidalle signalled to the musicians to resume their tune as he took over the unlacing of Lady Cestina’s gown.
Chalmers howled in frustration as she struggled in vain to pull free from her captors. The man she’d injured used this as an excuse to strike her across the face, but to her credit, the Greatcoat didn’t beg or plead or moan, but shouted, ‘Kill me then, you dogs, but know that a reckoning comes to Tristia. Retribution rides on a fast horse and wields a sharp blade. So go ahead, you foul-breathed bastards, slit my throat if you dare.’
Evidalle sighed. ‘Are you just about done, Lady Greatcoat?’ He removed his fingers from the laces on the front of Lady Cestina’s wedding dress. ‘Forgive me, my love, but I fear that the Greatcoat’s caterwauling is making me lose my enthusiasm for our little performance.’
Her reply was oddly plaintive. ‘You mustn’t stop now, my dear.’
All eyes turned to stare in surprise at the young bride. Beneath the tears and smudged maschiera paints, Lady Cestina’s expression had changed; the mask of fear and sorrow had been replaced by what looked suspiciously like a self-satisfied grin. Eyes bright with mischief, she added, ‘We’re just getting to the best part.’
Very slowly, like a dancer taking her first few steps onto the stage, Lady Cestina walked over and extended a hand to caress the chin of her deeply confused would-be rescuer.
‘My valiant Greatcoat, I must apologise. You see, I’m afraid this really is a wedding play . . . only you were never meant to perform the part of the daring hero. You’re here to play the villain.’