USURPER’S LEGACY (The Prince’s Son)
A little longer than my usual excerpts, this is the prologue from my nearly complete (yay!) sequel to THE PRINCE’S MAN, and tells the climax of the first book from a very different viewpoint…
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Hungry flames invaded the garlands festooning the roof beams of the palace’s Great Hall. Tiny specks of gold darted in and out of the greenery, setting new fires wherever they touched; miniature dragons with flickering wings—salamanders.
Another cluster of berries exploded, raining hot juices down upon the heads of the panicked crowd. Mykel Dench braced himself as a horde of finely-dressed nobles stampeded towards him. On the raised dais at the front of the hall he could see his master, Hensar, the pretender to the throne, grappling with the loyalist spy, Lady Risada Delgano vas Domn. The stench of burning greenery, the cacophony of screams and clatter of tumbling chairs all faded into insignificance for Mykel when Lady Risada slit Hensar’s throat.
Mykel shrieked his fury but his voice vanished into the crowd. Rage lent him strength and he ploughed into the oncoming mob, swinging the pommel of his sword like a club, not caring if he cracked a bone or three, or sliced the odd gobbet of flesh. He’d worked too hard for this moment; for the downfall of the royal family and their spymaster, Prince Halnashead.
His master might be dead, but Mykel would see Prince Halnashead dead too. And that bitch Risada.
A squawking noblewoman with her hair ablaze fell in his path and Mykel stumbled over her, cursing. Her hands wrapped around his ankle, dragging at him. He inverted his sword, stabbing her repeatedly until her grip fell away. He had taken two more stumbling steps when a swag of burning ivy crashed down in front of him and he lurched to a stop.
Turning his eyes to the dais, a scant ten paces before him, his heart leapt to his throat. Hensar was not dead after all. Lady Risada was stooped over his supine form, but the Royal Bastard’s hands were wrapped around her throat, choking her. Mykel’s breath caught. Yes! The coup would succeed after all.
Then ice shot through his veins. A figure with bound hands but unfettered feet lashed out at Hensar, kicking his head so hard Mykel was sure his neck must have snapped. The ice in his blood turned to white hot rage. That miserable lackey of a prince’s man, Rustam Chalice, would pay too.
Seeing Hensar still moving, Mykel gathered himself and leapt over the flames that blocked his path. Heat singed his nostril hairs and invaded his lungs. Overhead, the roof writhed with flames, thick noxious smoke curling downward, threatening to smother all who remained. Mykel narrowed his watering eyes. Lady Risada was injured and failing, Rustam Chalice’s hands were manacled behind his back. If Mykel could only get to the dais, he could finish those two and aid his master.
With a roaring whoosh, one of the huge roof timbers crashed down, obliterating Hensar even as he rose once more.
Mykel screamed again, venting his wrath. All his plotting, all his deceit, all those interminable years spent building the prince’s trust, for naught; gone in one swift action of fate.
The high voice cut through the crackle and hiss of the burning hall. Mykel spun towards it and saw the one piece of good fortune left to him. When the beam fell, Lady Risada had been forced back from the dais and now stood, wavering on unsteady feet amidst tumbled chairs, two rows over. Mykel smiled. Small compensation, but at least one of Halnashead’s spies would not leave the hall alive. He raised his sword.
“I don’t think so.”
The voice came from behind him—just before a chair crashed against his shoulder, knocking him off balance. One of its legs caught him along the side of the head and stars sparkled across his vision. The breath that whooshed out of his body was replaced by smoke as he inhaled, and he coughed it back up even as he lashed out at his attacker. His sword swung through empty space as something smacked into the back of one knee, felling him.
He landed in a tangle amidst fallen chairs and smouldering greenery. Heat seared his lungs as he struggled to regain his breath. If he didn’t escape the hall soon he would die, yet he still found his focus drawn to Lady Risada, on her knees now and so tantalizingly close.
A tiny feminine figure knelt down beside Risada and pried her fist open, extracting a ring of keys. Straightening up, the small woman threw the keys, sending them flying through the air to arc over the conflagration obscuring the dais.
Whoever it was, she’d just provided Chalice with the means of rescuing the shackled members of the royal family. Teeth gritted, Mykel lurched to his feet, determined to finish both women. He finally recognised his assailant from her petite form: Betha Fontmaness, a lesser noble who had confounded his plans once before. She turned to face him.
“Come on!” she encouraged, beckoning. Mykel hesitated. Was she stupid? He was twice her size and armed, yet she showed no fear. A frisson of alarm shivered through his body; was she a magic user? He had no defence against the vile art.
Yet how could she be? She was Tyr-enese through and through; it could not be!
Giving himself a shake, Mykel resumed his attack. Though still wary he could not possibly see how two unarmed women might escape his wrath.
He swung his sword, only to have the irksome female duck beneath it again and come up close beside him. Something in her hand glittered with reflected flames. Mykel was too slow to avoid her dagger thrust and the tip scored a stinging trace along his ribcage. Infuriated, he jerked his arm backward, elbow connecting solidly with the side of Betha’s head. She swayed with the force of the blow and staggered, but did not fall. Spinning round, Mykel grabbed her hand, grappling for the dagger. He twisted her wrist hard, feeling the fragile bones break, and still she did not let go.
Was she not human, after all?
She glared defiantly at him and kneed him in the groin.
Agony erupted through Mykel’s body and he doubled over, hugging himself. He was barely aware when Betha shoved him over, and by the time he came back to himself he was alone, blinded by smoke and choking. Through watering eyes he stared at his reddening skin and somewhere in the back of his mind, some speck of an urge to live whipped him into a crawl. With little idea of direction, he followed a jumbled line of chairs, hoping it might lead to an exit. A bright point of light darted near and the skin on Mykel’s nose started to blister. He recoiled from the tiny elemental. Magic! His heart raced, and he bit back a cry. Reaching for his sword, he realised he’d dropped it.
Just as he was convinced he was to die, the salamander shot away and Mykel resumed his struggle, scrambling on hands and knees, burying his nose and mouth as well he could in the folds of his uniform jacket. He coughed incessantly, and his skin felt ready to crisp and shrivel like a hog on a spit.
A waft of clean air shocked him and he froze for an instant. Blazing ivy dropped onto his head, clinging to his hair and face like a parasite, eating into his flesh. Frantic, he ripped the stuff away, hollering in pain as it tore patches of skin away with it. Shaking almost too hard to stand, he drove himself to his feet, shedding his smouldering jacket as he went. Another gust of fresh air drew him to a staggering run and he burst out of the Great Hall as it collapsed behind him. He fell to his knees.
“Are you hurt? Can you move?”
“Oh goddess, look at his face!”
Voices pummelled ears still ringing with the sizzle and clamour of the inferno. Hands grasped his arms, pulling him further from the intense heat of the burning building. Someone threw a bucket of water over him and he gasped with shock, but in the next second drew a sweet breath of relief as his skin cooled.
“Who are you? Who were you with?”
He shook his head, gasping at the agony that was his ruined face. Staying mute was easy, and seemed the safest option for now anyway. Glad that he’d shed the telltale black and silver uniform jacket, he might blend more easily with the general crowd, at least until he knew who had taken charge. He assumed it would be the royal family. On the other hand, the nobles had been divided in the lead up to the coup, some acquiescing only as a result of intimidation, whilst others had been openly supportive of the pretender. In the aftermath, political turmoil was sure to ensue.
“I’m fine, really,” he muttered from one side of his mouth as he lurched to his feet, shrugging off the eager helping hands. “I need to find someone.”
Clutching his arms over his wet shirt and starting to shiver, he stumbled away. Blinking repeatedly, trying to clear his smoke-blurred vision, he veered suddenly to his left to avoid a cluster of highborns kneeling around the unconscious figure of Lady Risada. Much to Mykel’s chagrin she was alive, and there was nothing he could do about that vexing state of affairs. He ducked his head and skirted a huddled group of servants, keeping line of sight on Risada and scanning the area for the Lady Betha. He had no wish to walk into her again; his balls still throbbed from their last encounter.
He clasped his arms even tighter around himself when he spotted her, seated on the ground near Risada’s feet. She was deep in conversation with another woman, and Mykel frowned as she gesticulated expressively, showing no sign of injury to her arm. He could have sworn he’d broken her wrist, and to see her apparently shrug off the harm he’d thought he’d inflicted irked him even further.
He bowed his head and kept moving, heading for the stables.
The stable yard was in uproar. Many of those who had supported Hensar were plainly eager to put distance between themselves and the palace until the rubble settled. Lads scurried to and fro, tacking up horses and presenting them for mounting; so many that in no way could the riders be certain of ending up with the right animal. That suited Mykel just fine. He grabbed the reins of a passing horse and swung into the saddle before the boy could protest. Setting his heels to the beast’s sides, he escaped the palace grounds along with the fleeing nobles.
Mykel glanced back over his shoulder at the smoke rising from within the palace grounds. Prince Halnashead and his family might have regained rule of Tyr-en, but their troubles were far from over, and Mykel vowed to ensure that it stayed that way for a very long time to come.
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Although part of ‘The Five Kingdoms’ series, this is also a standalone, and can be read without the above prologue, as I know quite a few readers refuse to read them. Personally, I think it sets the scene nicely, though the book picks up 2 years later.
The Prince’s Man was the winner of a UK Arts Board Award, and was an Amazon Top 100 Hot New Release; here’s hoping for the sequel.