NOTE: I’m relaunching the boxset! To get you pumped, here a sample chapter 🙂 Oh, and SPOILER ALERT. It happens a bit later in the book.
“The years have treated you poorly,” Semreh said playfully from the doorway.
Equitas turned with delight to see his old friend, creases around the young King’s eyes. He had to be in his late-twenties, at most, but the years had been unkind. Still, he held himself well, posture straight, rich purple robes hanging from his almost-plump body.
“The same can’t be said for you,” Equitas replied with a laugh. “I see they feed you well in the North.”
“Hey now, that’s my queen’s fault. She keeps insisting I eat more. Says skinny men remind her of little boys.” He held his belly like it was an award. “This, she tells me, makes me look like the man I am. A great one, in case you were wondering.”
They both laughed and took each other in an embrace.
“Where’s this queen of yours?” Equitas asked, looking down the hall past Semreh.
“She wanted to spend some time with your mother. You know, queen time.”
“And here you are, stuck with me.”
Semreh laughed. “I figured we’d investigate my neighbors of the South, see how the people of Braze are faring. Go undercover.”
“You can’t be serious.”
With a quick movement, Semreh cast his purple robes aside to reveal brown street clothes underneath.
“Semreh, it’s dangerous.”
“Are you telling me the streets of Nethia are not as well-maintained as you’d have the rest of the world believe?”
“From what I hear, they’re fine, but—”
“Then come, you must not deny your king his pleasures.” Semreh moved to the window and glanced out to the courtyard two stories down. “Wonderful. We’ll get to practice our climbing skills.”
“Do we have to?” Equitas sighed, seeing his friend already climbing out of the open window. “Lucky for me Amaris isn’t here. She’d kill me if she saw this foolishness.”
“Nonsense.” Semreh smiled up from a window ledge. He lowered himself over to an awning where he landed firmly and then slid down before jumping to another window ledge. “She’d probably be leading the adventure.”
Equitas shrugged. That was possibly true, or at least it would have been before the birth of their son. She had become tamer since then. Leading by example. It hardly worked, as their son yearned for adventure. If the boy were ever left alone with Semreh, he’d be sure to get it.
With a thud, Equitas landed on the hay beside Semreh.
“Forget dangerous. You don’t think this is a bit of a cliché?”
“The king going out among the people?” Semreh held up a finger for silence, then said in a hushed voice, “These aren’t my people. They answer to your mother. So it doesn’t really count, does it?”
Equitas had to ponder that a moment.
“Come, I’m craving a meat pie from your market,” Semreh said as he stood and brushed off some hay. He paused, leaving some stuck to his clothes. “Actually, it adds to the effect in a nice way.”
Equitas groaned but motioned for Semreh to follow. “Market’s this way.”
“Ah, see why we’re friends? You’re useful.”
“Whoa,” Semreh said playfully. “You tell your king to ‘shut up?’”
“King? Where?” Equitas made a show of looking around with a worried look. He turned his gaze back to Semreh’s clothes, the hay still stuck to him. “Surely you don’t mean this cockroach of the streets?”
“So the costume works is what you’re saying?”
Equitas rolled his eyes. He paused at the base of the castle ground’s marble steps, checking around the corner to look for guards on patrol. They couldn’t stop him, but he wouldn’t want to be seen allowing the King of the North to go out in public like this.
White marble columns and intricately carved fountains gave way to the lower city of Nethia, white marble transitioning into red clay roofs and terracotta-block walls. The wide road continued to a city square, where in its center stood statues of the original members of the Council of Nethia. Reveries in their purple and silver robes spoke with citizens in front of a temple to the right, rubies in their hair glinting in the early sun. Moneylenders milled about with their shifty eyes before a bank at the far end.
“Past them,” Equitas said, nodding at the moneylenders. “Just to the left and the city opens up with a view of the Eastern Sea. That’s where the merchants open up shop.”
Semreh assessed the sun’s position in the sky. “At this time of day, they’d be set up and working, I would think.”
“Here in Nethia, they’re always working.”
“That’s the way I like it. Why bother relaxing and enjoying life when there’s money to be had and meat pies to be sold?”
“I never can tell if you’re being sarcastic.”
Semreh smiled wide and shrugged.
“Let’s move,” Equitas said, comfortable that the guards weren’t passing by in the next several minutes. A group of them stood on guard to the left of the square, but they were charged with keeping people out, and wouldn’t likely be watching who was leaving.
Semreh glanced over at a Reverie and raised an eyebrow.
“The rumors about your brother…. You never put much stock in those, did you?”
“You mean the Reveries proclaiming him a god…?”
“Exactly. All that stuff back with the Mawtu, how he was Adonis reborn.”
“I saw him. He was no god. At any rate, I’m the last to believe in that talk. You know me.”
Semreh scoffed. “I once knew you, as a brother. Now? Living as a family man in Karack, no longer going by your birth name of Narcel…. You’re almost a stranger.”
“That’s not my fault, Your Majesty.”
“Enough of that.”
They turned the corner Equitas had pointed out, arriving at the beginning of the market. Cobblestone streets were covered in earth-toned stalls, street vendors arranging their goods for the day’s visitors. One man led a couple of hogs across the path, which explained the stench the wind carried. Past it all, the Eastern Sea was shining in the morning sun.
“We have nothing as impressive in Orath,” Semreh said.
“Are you kidding?” Equitas shook his head in disbelief. “The domed palace, the churches? None of that seems more impressive than this dirty lot?”
“Hey, I was born into that, don’t forget. This is new, different.”
Equitas looked back over the market, closing his eyes to feel the salty ocean breeze as it blew over him. The cloths of the market rippled, and seagulls called from above.
“It’s not all bad,” he admitted.
“But it will be perfect once we have those meat pies in hand. Lead the way.”
Equitas started down the road, nodding to a few merchants who recognized him as Gaila’s son. After the defense of Nethia, legend of his bravery had spread through the city, and some even started calling him the great warrior of Karack, in spite of the fact that he was technically more Nethian than Karackian. Not that he would turn down the title—he liked it. He especially liked it when Amaris would whisper it in his ear in their bed, “My great Warrior of Karack. Savior of Nethia.”
In reality, he knew his mother and her army had largely led the defense, but it had been him that defeated the enemy’s leader, his own cousin, Lokum.
“Hey,” Semreh said, snapping his fingers inches from Equitas’s eyes. “Where were you?”
“Some memories are best forgotten, if we’re talking about the ones I suspect we are.”
“You’re right, of course.”
Equitas approached the cart of meat pies, avoiding eye contact with his friend. He felt bad, focusing on himself when Semreh’s parents had been killed by the same army that both Equitas and Semreh had once been part of—the Mawtu. It was this murder that made Semreh king now, though Semreh rarely failed to point out that a large part of him being king was due to Equitas’s help as well, what with Semreh’s nefarious uncle trying to take the throne all those years ago and Equitas’s part in taking him down.
“Don’t do that,” Semreh said, accepting a meat pie. “Don’t ruin my meat pie with your pity for events long gone. The past is the past.”
“It never truly is.”
Equitas paid the merchant and bit into his meat pie, closing his eyes in a moment of bliss. The way the warm meat juice soaked into the crust was perfection, followed by a savory lamb that melted in his mouth like butter.
They kept walking, taking time to look over stalls with jewelry made from seashells, leather armor dyed a multitude of colors, and more than one cart selling knives carved from various rocks or with handles from animal horns.
Somebody brushed against Equitas, and he instinctively reached for his coin pouch, but it was still there. He looked up to see the culprit, a young woman who was barely of age. Her pure white robe was tied tight around her waist, open in the front to reveal her cleavage.
“Looks like the morning brought in a fresh catch,” the girl said, looking Equitas up and down like a piece of delicious meat. “What’ya say, Ellpsi?”
“Yummy,” a second woman said, looking very much like the first, except that she wore more makeup around the eyes and had blonde hair tied up instead of the flowing red of the first.
“Run before they gobble you up,” Semreh said to Equitas with a laugh.
“Don’t think we haven’t noticed you too,” Ellpsi said.
Semreh grinned wide, but backed off at a glare from Equitas, who cleared his throat and nodded for his friend to follow him. They walked off with an apology from Semreh, but the women followed.
“No need to be rude,” the redhead said, skipping to catch up and then walking closer than was comfortable. “We’re reasonable.”
“No need to empty your purses for us,” Ellpsi said. “Simply—”
“Stop right there,” Equitas said. “You’re talking payment?”
“We have to eat, don’t we?”
“I believe what you’re talking about will get you thrown in a castle cell, won’t it?”
The woman shrugged. “I’m starting to think you’re not interested.”
“No, I’m not.” Equitas stormed off.
“What then?” Semreh said, catching him a moment later. “You plan on reporting them?”
“Then calm down.”
Equitas ran his fingers through his hair, frustrated. “Semreh, my mother outlawed that type of behavior. And as a king—”
“Quiet with that talk.”
“As a king,” Equitas continued, his voice hushed, “you shouldn’t be out here, dealing with people like that. You should be—”
But Semreh had turned, eyes intent on something, focused. Equitas heard it too—the clash of swords!
They ran, reaching for their weapons, and turned past several tents to find a patch of green grass where two men were swinging at each other. A crowd had gathered to watch the fight, several men in the front cheering.
Equitas was about to intervene, when the older of the two men fighting called out, “And what would you do next?”
His opponent, a boy of no more than fifteen years of age, shrugged and held up his sword in a mock swing.
“You could,” the old man said. “But I’d simply do this.” He motioned for the boy to swing, then brought his sword up to knock the blade aside. He brought out a hidden knife and stopped with the blade inches from the boy’s neck.
The crowd cheered and the boy nodded appreciatively.
“It’s a demonstration,” Semreh said with a laugh. He sheathed his sword, but the sound of steel on leather drew the old man’s attention.
“We have a warrior in our midst!” the old man said, motioning for Semreh to join him in the grassy patch. “Let’s give these boys a true demonstration.”
Semreh laughed, both hands up to ward him off.
“Come, boy,” the old man said. “Are you scared I’d embarrass you?”
“Don’t do it,” Equitas whispered.
Ignoring him, Semreh stepped forward. “What do you have in mind, old man?”
“At last, someone with some steel in his spine.” The old man leered and tossed Semreh a dulled blade. “I saw that sword of yours, and figure you must know how to use it. So what’ya say, just like in the training pit?”
“You’ve trained in the pit?” Semreh asked, referring to the place soldiers of the castle trained.
“Used to be one of the king’s best, when there was a king.”
“We should be going,” Equitas said, unable to hide the exasperation in his voice.
Semreh shot his friend a glance, but simply shook his head. He held the training sword in his right hand, then switched to his left and took a fighting stance.
As a showman would, the old man paced around Semreh, holding his own training sword at the ready.
“One lucky boy here today will be welcomed as my apprentice, so pay close attention.” He struck with a forward thrust, which Semreh parried with ease. “When faced with an opponent who knows his moves, what should one do?”
“Surrender?” Semreh said playfully, then attacked with a three-strike combination, the last hitting the old man on the rear with a thwap.
“Fight dirty,” the old man said in response, and then spun to pin Semreh’s sword against his side as he head-butted him in the nose. Next, the old man swept out Semreh’s legs and brought him to the ground. Two of the bystanders were on Semreh before Equitas knew what was happening, pulling his sword from its sheath and disappearing into the crowd.
Semreh pushed the old man back and stood with a shout, but the crowd was already dispersing, boys running in all directions.
“STOP THEM!” Semreh shouted, looking desperately to Equitas. “That was my father’s sword!”
“God—that’s why I said—”
“Not the time for lectures!” Semreh was searching desperately for the old man. Equitas spotted him disappearing behind a black curtain at the edge of the market, so gave chase.
“The sword went the other way!”
“We get him, we can find his accomplices!”
Semreh cursed and ran after Equitas. The old man was surprisingly limber, ducking into a building and then running up a flight of stairs as fast as a young boy. They chased him up to a roof that was connected to a nearby building by several wooden planks, and it was only after crossing these that Equitas realized this might be a trap. Of course, by then it was too late.
Semreh had already dropped down through a skylight to pursue the old man, and Equitas heard the sounds of fighting below. He grabbed hold of the ledge as he lowered himself to follow, and swung so that he kicked one of the men in the chest and sent him back into the wall. He landed on his feet and spun to see three men on Semreh, then a false wall fell to reveal two men in guard uniforms.
“Stop them!” Equitas shouted at the guards. “That’s King Semrehian they attack!”
But the guards ignored his order, and instead one of them kicked him in the side of the knee. It made a popping sound and Equitas collapsed, screaming in frustration. The second guard lifted his spear, preparing to strike, but Equitas pulled his sword and parried the strike aside. He pushed himself to his feet with a shout of pain, his knee not fully supporting his weight, and backed up to Semreh.
“I think I’m ready to admit this was a mistake,” Semreh said as he deflected a sword and kicked the attacker back against the wall. Another attack came, and this time Semreh slashed back, splattering blood across the wall in what could have been a work of art.
Equitas deflected another attack from the guards. “Let’s save my gloating for later.”
“Last chance,” the old man said. He motioned, and several more guards emerged from the hidden room. “Surrender.”
“We don’t accept your surrender,” Semreh said, and then charged.
The men moved on him, the first one falling to his sword, but two more pinning his sword arm to the wall as a third tackled his legs. Guards moved in, spears at his throat as the old man tied a cloth over his mouth.
“Your turn,” a guard said, turning to Equitas.
“I don’t suppose reminding you who I am would make a difference?” Equitas said, backing up to the corner, eyes darting between his captured friend and their attackers.
“We no longer recognize your mother as queen.”
“Then I’m going to have to take you in myself.”
Equitas charged, in spite of his busted knee, narrowly avoiding the spear attack. He knew about spears—his Mawtu training had prepared him for spear fights probably better than anyone in Nethia could understand. He moved past the guard, where the area was too narrow and the ceiling too short to allow mobility, and as the guard tried to reposition himself to attack, Equitas drove his sword into the man’s gut. The next closest guard thrust, but again there wasn’t room to maneuver after Equitas side-stepped the attack, and his sword slashed open the man’s throat.
A sharp pain shot through Equitas’s leg, and he remembered his knee, just in time for it to give way. He’d gotten too cocky, as often happened after the first kill. Adrenaline rushing and almost overtaking the pain, he rose in time to avoid a dagger the old man threw at him, spinning to see it lodge itself into the wall.
Something hit him from behind, and he fell onto the guard whose throat he’d opened. Then a sword came toward his head. Unlike Semreh, who they were apparently trying to capture alive, they meant to kill Equitas.
He rolled, then saw three more guards with spears raised, ready for the strike. The spears fell swiftly, their steel tips glinting in the faint light of the room.
“Nooo!” Equitas shouted, knowing that his life was about to be over. He’d leave behind his wife and son, a grieving mother, and a whole life unlived. But in that moment, he felt a surge of energy. A silver glow streamed from the dead bodies of the guards, erasing the pain in his knee. He moved with greater speed than he’d ever thought himself capable of, narrowly avoiding each of the spears and spinning to land with a kick that broke the spear shafts in two.
That never should have worked! A regular kick should result in more damage to the leg than the spears, but he didn’t have time to ponder it. Instead, he felt himself lifting off the ground, a silvery mist rising from his limbs like smoke, and he saw the fear in the men’s eyes.
One more struck, but before the sword had moved more than an inch, Equitas was at his side, lifting the man into the air to then slam him into the ground in a way that splintered wood and crushed every bone in the man’s body.
The rest of them ran.
Equitas was about to pursue. The taste of death was strong on his tongue, pulling at his senses and his entire being for more. But a grunt from Semreh pulled him back. With a deep release of breath, the silver glow flowed out of him and, for a moment, he thought he would fall over dead. The pain in his knee was back, now ten times worse than before, and his body felt non-responsive.
He fell beside Semreh, working his hands to undo the cloths used to subdue his friend. When Semreh was free, he grabbed a spear from one of the dead soldiers, then helped Equitas to stand. Using his friend for support and putting as little weight on his injured knee as possible, they escaped the house and didn’t stop until they were three blocks away, next to a small stream where they could wash the splattered blood from their faces and hands.
“What the hell was that?” Semreh asked, staring wide-eyed at Equitas. “What happened back there?”
“I … I have no idea.”
Equitas turned to look into the stream, staring at his reflection. He looked like the same man, but something was different in those eyes staring back. It wasn’t the exhaustion or the fear there, it was something even more…. Something he didn’t recognize and couldn’t put a label on.
He’d felt a hint of this power once before, on the castle wall that day he’d helped defend Nethia against Lokum. He’d even seen part of it in his brother’s eyes that day, when Adonis caught him one-handed to save him from falling from the castle walls. None of it made sense, and if he wanted answers, he imagined there was only one person he could go to—he’d have to find Adonis.
But for now, they had more immediate concerns.
FROM JUSTIN >>> Okay, that was a bit long for a snippet, but I wanted to give you the full taste. The sis a book from the heart, full of the old style me that I keep trying to reach out and grab a hold of. I love writing fantasy, as you know if you’ve been paying attention to my Hidden Magic Chronicles (starting with SHADES OF LIGHT – out now).
So yeah, if you’re interested in a nice set of books and are into fantasy, here you go. Enjoy!
And if you like Audio, don’t forget about LAND OF GODS, the first book in this trilogy, which Jeff Hays narrated. It’s on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes, and you can get it free on Audible with a trial.