Thanks to the positive response to sharing excerpts from my first novel, Starshadow, I am excited to put out the very first scene on my blog. If you enjoy it, feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me @MendicantB for a free copy. The book is also available on Amazon Kindle (Free on Kindle Unlimited).
Aestor-Caelestim was the largest city in the world. Its inhabitants were countless, although the most recent census indicated that the legal citizens were more than forty thousand men, not including women, children, and slaves. Add to that the travelers, traders, criminals, and garrisons, and you got a number nearer two hundred thousand divided into twenty districts.
Not bad for the Capitol of the known world.
But things had not always been that way, and if certain steps were not taken, the city was destined to fall like all the other great cities of the past. Corruption, debt, venereal disease, and internal unrest were only a few of the spices that gave the city its special flavor. All of which, as fate would have it, were traits that Senator Glaucus shared with the city.
At the moment, though, he was hardly in the mood to ponder the irony. He was too busy hurrying through a bitterly cold winter’s night, huddled in a tattered cloak that was meant to disguise him as a peasant. The disguise was not perfect, but by this time, he was precisely what he appeared to be: tired, cold, and damp.
The reason he was not riding in state, or staying in his warm mansion for that matter, was that he was late for a very important and very secret meeting with Senator Pyrrhus. Senator Pyrrhus was even more famous and wealthy than Glaucus had ever been, which was why Glaucus had consented to meeting in a dangerous and poor district amid the worst snows in recorded history.
Interior District Three, as all good citizens knew, was the very best location for a person who wanted to be robbed, killed, or raped even in broad daylight – sometimes all three, and sometimes in that order depending on the day. This was why it was very good that Senator Pyrrhus, having chosen this location, also chose as the time a miserable night during which anyone not cowering near a dying fire would be busy dying himself. The chief difference between the man with the fire and the man without one, Glaucus reflected, would be that the first would have the benefit of seeing the frost spread slowly from his feet and hands towards his heart, whereas the second man would suffer not only a slow death but intense boredom during the process.
“Damn his eyes,” Glaucus muttered, fervently hoping that Pyrrhus was as thinly clad as he was. Not that the curse was needed – everyone even remotely connected to the Capitol’s political doings knew that Pyrrhus’ body and soul had probably been damned a hundred times over by now. The man had been behind more assassination, embezzlement, and general skullduggery than the rest of the senate combined.
And this was precisely the reason why he was still in power.
At last, Glaucus rounded the last corner and saw the dark cathedral. Groaning in relief, he limped toward the front doors and slumped against them, ready to stumble into the comparative warmth…
The huge oak doors were locked tight.
Glaucus began to pound on the door, careless of the street, heeding only the howling wind and the chill of the snow melting in his hair. Slowly, the door creaked open. Without even stopping to see who was inside, Glaucus stumbled gratefully into the firelight.
Pyrrhus’ voice sent a fresh chill down Glaucus’ spine.
“What have you brought me?”
Glaucus’ teeth would not stop chattering as he edged towards the burning brazier. Pyrrhus was sitting nearby, feet propped lazily toward the fire, seated comfortably on thick cushions. He was surrounded by large, martial figures that bristled rather unsettlingly with blades of various size and serration.
There was no response from the seated figure. After a few awkward moments, Glaucus fumbled in his cloak and produced a wrapped package.
“I don’t suppose…”
Glaucus was interrupted as Pyrrhus snapped his fingers. A huge guard snatched the package from Glaucus and passed it to the recumbent senator.
“Thank you, Sergeant,” the senator said lazily.
Glaucus shivered helplessly, eying the huge guard as Pyrrhus pulled a scroll from the leather tube and began to read. He was younger than Glaucus by at least fifteen years, but his eyes were old and deep with ill-gotten power and cunning. Glaucus began to feel more than slightly aware of his loneliness in the dark.
The old man flinched as the church door slammed open again. Two more dark-cloaked guards lumbered inside, seemingly heedless of the miserable chill. They did not bother to close the door.
“He was not followed, my lord.” The taller of the two had a rumbling voice; Glaucus could not see his face, but his accent was strange.
“Good. Shut the door, Sergeant, the man is freezing. I still need him for a bit longer, you know.”
As the door rumbled shut, Glaucus edged away from the new men. Somehow, he felt that it would not be wise to interrupt Pyrrhus’ reading.
Then Pyrrhus sucked in a breath through his teeth.
“Death and damnation. He has betrayed us.”
Pyrrhus rolled up the scroll and cast it into the brazier.
“Tyrian has uncovered something of a conspiracy and, despite his stupidity, appears to be coming to that realization himself. Moreover, he has joined the General on a grand tour of the Southern Defenses. Two thirds of the Triumvirate are miles away from supervision and are doubtless up to their eyes in conspiracy.”
Glaucus was somewhat bewildered. Tyrian, it was said, had a heart of gold and a brain of clay. Despite his position as head of the richest merchant family in the Kingdoms, his charitable foundations along with his legendary love of strong wine and exquisite women made people think of him as a loveable rascal. To think that Tyrian was one of the Triumvirs, part of the shadow government…
He didn’t know why, but Glaucus suddenly realized that he was standing before the leader of the group – and, worse, that the sneering Pyrrhus knew that he knew. Wonderful.
Glaucus gazed solemnly at Pyrrhus.
“Glaucus,” the younger man said sweetly, “I don’t suppose you happen to be wearing your signet ring on this cold night? Being an aide to His Majesty, I know you have certain… Privileges.”
Fighting nausea and panic, Glaucus tried to think. If he denied it, Pyrrhus would probably slit his throat and take the ring from his dead corpse. If he admitted it, the senator would do the same thing… Unless…
“I keep it hidden unless needed. What does my lord…”
As soon as Pyrrhus snapped his fingers, the ten armed men drew their blades. Glaucus was surrounded.
“I believe I asked, do you have your signet ring?”
Trembling, Glaucus pulled at his glove until it slipped to the floor. He pulled the ring from his numb fingers and held it out. The sneering, giant Sergeant Arvis snatched the ring in a massive paw and passed it to Pyrrhus, who had abandoned his cushions and was leaning towards the brazier, warming the seal on a scroll.
“Excellent. Now I have irrefutable royal approval for these impossibly scandalous military orders. Should anything go awry, the seal will lead to the king through the great Senator Glaucus. Meanwhile, you will be unable to deny these charges…”
Glaucus was already rushing to the door, trying to shoulder past the guards, putting every last ounce of strength into his aging, aching body…
“From the grave.”
The sound of the words intertwined with the sound of Pyrrhus snapping his fingers. Glaucus gasped as icy steel pierced his heart. The hall echoed with the stabbing and slashing.
“And when they find your mutilated body, they will believe you to have been murdered in the course of consorting with unsavory persons in the course of personal conspiracy.”
Blood pooled on the floor, and the brazier hissed as it was extinguished.
“This conspiracy theory, ironically enough, will have been absolutely true.”
Without another word, Pyrrhus stepped over the body and walked outside, into the howling darkness.