Thanks to the cool folks at Del Rey, here's an exclusive extract from Richard Morgan's The Cold Commands. For more information about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
With The Steel Remains, award-winning science fiction writer Richard K. Morgan turned his talents to sword and sorcery. The result: a genre-busting masterwork hailed as a milestone in contemporary epic fantasy. Now Morgan continues the riveting saga of Ringil Eskiath—Gil, for short—a peerless warrior whose love for other men has made him an outcast and pariah.
Only a select few have earned the right to call Gil friend. One is Egar, the Dragonbane, a fierce Majak fighter who comes to respect a heart as savage and loyal as his own. Another is Archeth, the last remaining daughter of an otherworldly race called the Kiriath, who once used their advanced technology to save the world from the dark magic of the Aldrain—only to depart for reasons as mysterious as their arrival. Yet even Egar and Archeth have learned to fear the doom that clings to their friend like a grim shadow . . . or the curse of a bitter god.
Now one of the Kiriath’s uncanny machine intelligences has fallen from orbit—with a message that humanity faces a grave new danger (or, rather, an ancient one): a creature called the Illwrack Changeling, a boy raised to manhood in the ghostly between-world realm of the Grey Places, home to the Aldrain. A human raised as one of them—and, some say, the lover of one of their greatest warriors—until, in a time lost to legend, he was vanquished. Wrapped in sorcerous slumber, hidden away on an island that drifts between this world and the Grey Places, the Illwrack Changeling is stirring. And when he wakes, the Aldrain will rally to him and return in force—this time without the Kiriath to stop them.
An expedition is outfitted for the long and arduous sea journey to find the lost island of the Illwrack Changeling. Aboard are Gil, Egar, and Archeth: each fleeing from ghosts of the past, each seeking redemption in whatever lies ahead. But redemption doesn’t come cheap these days. Nor, for that matter, does survival. Not even for Ringil Eskiath. Or anyone—god or mortal—who would seek to use him as a pawn.
“When slaves are shackled in Yhelteth,” he sniffed, peering out at the slow gray creep of dawn across the scrub, “they stay shackled.”
The imperial trade legate was less than impressed.
Poppy Snarl held down an urge to stab the man right under that neatly kept little fucking goatee he wore. Wouldn’t have been hard to do it, either; two steps across the tent, he barely topped her by an inch and a half anyway, and like most imperials she’d met he was mannered and perfumed like some harbor-end ladyboy with delusions of courtly station. Useless piece of shit. He’d done nothing but bitch about the conditions on the march since they set out, and the endless comparisons with how much better things were done in Yhelteth were beginning to wear her down. She didn’t like the imperials and their oh- so- fucking- superior airs, even at the best of times. And this— well short of cock- crow, the night without sleep, nearly an entire cofﬂe of male merchandise somehow escaped, or killed or crippled beyond salable worth in the attempt, close to a dozen of her march- masters dead or dying, and another dozen still out unaccounted for in the hills— this was deﬁ nitively not the best of times.
Still— ﬁngers forced, through a major effort of will, to remain loose on the hilt of the fruit knife she was using to peel a breakfast apple, a bland diplomatic smile put on like makeup— she needed this man’s good graces. They all did. Preferred supplier status was not something the Empire granted lightly, and Trelayne was not the only city in the League jostling for position now that Liberalization had opened up the trade again. Play nice, Slab Findrich had advised her over a celebratory pipe before they left. Let him feel superior, if that’s what gets his ink on the parchment. It’s just business, you’ve got to suck it up.
Yeah, easy for you to say, she’d snapped. You’re not the one going to be on the road with him for a solid two months.
Findrich just ﬁxed her with his leaden eyes. He wasn’t much for histrionics.
We’re legitimate now, Poppy. An equally leaden patience in the rasping, pipe-cooked voice. This is how it’s done.
Yeah, this was how it was done. Like the war all over again. The perfumed fucking imperials standing around like priests at an orgy, while she and her League muscle scrambled to get a tourniquet on the escape. Findrich’s legate pal and his high- tone bodyguards hadn’t lifted a ﬁ nger all night except to examine their fucking nails in the ﬁrelight.
They were just so fucking above it all.
Her palm itched where the knife lay across it. She settled for imagination, chopped deep into the apple with her blade, and sliced off a glistening chunk. Chewed it and swallowed.
“Of course,” she said smoothly, “I’d be most grateful for anything I can learn from our more advanced colleagues in the Yhelteth slave market. It’s part of the reason for this trip. But right now, I’m afraid we—”
Scuff of boots outside the tent ﬂap. “Milady?”
“Irgesh. Good morning. Are we accounted for, ﬁnally?”
The lead march-master ducked his head into the tent. Red- eyed and weary from the night’s hunt. “Uhm, in fact no, milady. Still missing eight. It’s just— there’s someone here to see you.”
“To see me?” She raised one groomed brow. “At this time of the morning? Is he from Hinerion?”
“Not sure, milady.” Hastily, spotting the smolder of exasperation in her face. “He . . . he’s not a commoner, that’s for sure. Noble-born, no question.”
Snarl sighed. “Oh, very well. Tell him I’ll be out. But if it’s the Hinerion border patrol commander, he’s a bit bloody late.”
Irgesh ducked out with visible relief. Snarl set down apple and knife and wiped her hands on a cloth.
“Sent out to Hinerion when all this kicked off,” she muttered. “He’s had the whole fucking night to get his men out the gate, and now he shows up when we’ve done all the work ourselves. Sometimes I wonder why we pay taxes.”
The imperial legate stroked his chin.
“As I have said numerous times, worthy merchants such as yourselves could not fail to beneﬁt from an allocation of imperial levies along the major trade routes. A hand in trading friendship that my Emperor would be only too happy to extend if you might persuade the League Assembly in that direction.”
Snarl looked at him bleakly. “Yeah, you’re right. You have said that numerous times.”
She found her cloak and snugged it around her shoulders. Looked brieﬂy into the tent’s tiny dressing mirror at the caked makeup, the sleepless eyes, the creeping signs of age. She hesitated a moment, then made an exasperated gesture, a spitting sound, and left everything the way it was. She stalked out into the dawn, let the legate follow or not, as he wished.
It seemed he did wish. She heard the tent ﬂap again behind her as she swept past the burned-down campﬁre and the standing march-master guard. The huddled mass of slaves stretched away into the graying gloom around her, thankfully quiescent now after the chaos of the night before. They’d had to beat down at least three or four other cofﬂes aside from the one that had so mysteriously come apart, as understanding of the escape spread through the caravan. She thought, glancing back through what had happened, that it might have been touch-and-go there for a while. Could easily have ended up with a full-blown chain revolt like the one at Parashal last year.
“Eight remaining,” the legate said at her shoulder. “That’s little enough wastage. My advice would be to call off the search, strike camp, and not waste more valuable journey time.”
“No.” Tight-lipped on the monosyllable. Snarl spotted the newly arrived nobleman down the rise from the tents at one of the other ﬁres, in conversation with Irgesh and a handful of the imperials. She headed downward, trailing explanation in tones just this side of polite. “I don’t work that way, I’m afraid. I don’t know how you handle these things in the Empire, but we’re staying put until the runaways are all accounted for.”
“But eight slaves, Mistress Snarl. So small a loss is—”
“My loss, my lord legate, is the major part of that cofﬂe, counting these eight or not. And there’s not one damn thing I can do about that. What I can do is make sure nothing like this ever happens again.” She felt her temper slipping. Bit down on her words for a clamp. “We are going to make examples here, soon as the sun comes up. And the word is going out for future fucking reference: Nobody, no-body gets off the chain on one of my caravans and lives.”
The legate muttered something in Tethanne. She didn’t know the language well enough to follow what he’d said, but guessed it for an insult. She was past caring. If Hinerion had sent help, they stood some chance of getting out of here today. If not, she’d have this watch commander’s balls. She reached the dying embers of the campﬁre, felt the faint wash of warmth it still radiated into the dawn chill. She drew breath to speak.
The new arrival showed no sign he’d noticed her approach— he stood with face and spread hands turned away, toward the ashen ﬁre, evidently feeling the cold as well and trying to soak up some of the remnant heat. Rich black brocade cloak over broad swordsman’s shoulders and what looked like a Kiriath blade and scabbard across his back. Snarl blinked, impressed despite herself. If the weapon was real and not one of the cheap replicas knocked out by forges across the League since the war, then her guest was a noble indeed. No one else outside the Empire could afford Kiriath steel, and across the free cities it was something of an ultimate in terms of status. Even in Trelayne itself, there were only a handful of men who—
She went very still. That voice alone, but then he turned slowly to face her.
They’d told her he was changed, back in Trelayne. Those who’d seen him, those who claimed they had. The stories were all much the same. Scar-faced, empty-eyed, eldritch— all trace of the young warrior who’d thrown back the Scaled Folk from the battlements of the city now eaten away from within by some consumption beyond human naming. At the time, she’d scoffed— it was the same basic rap they ran for every street thug, marsh creep, or coastal pirate the Watch had yet to bring to justice. Stood to reason— you had to have some rationale for why you’d let him face you down and get away. Why, against all the odds, he kept slipping through your fumbling law enforcement ﬁngers. Why the men you commanded were not enough, why your bounty hunter’s blade hadn’t been up to the task of taking this one down.
Eldritch. Sure. Glamorous, shadowy, and unhuman. Walks through walls.
A crock of shit.
Perhaps, Findrich admitted, as they talked it through one early-spring evening. But for all that, we have lost our dwenda patron, our very own walker- through- walls, and the rumors say it was Ringil that took him down. They say—
Oh, they say! They say? Slab, give me a fucking break! When does the mob not rock itself to sleep with folklore and wish fulﬁllment? Do you really think we could rule these idiots the way we do if they didn’t have their myths to cuddle up to around the ﬁre at night?
She knew Ringil Eskiath, perhaps as intimately as anyone alive, and she didn’t think it likely he was much different from the arrogant aristo prick he’d always been. A little older and colder with the war years, maybe, but who wasn’t.
Now, suddenly, as she met his gaze, she was no longer sure.
“Ringil,” she managed urbanely. “Do I have you to thank for this impromptu insurrection?”
“No. They thought of that themselves.”
The voice was a soft rasp, not much over a whisper, and the hollow eyes might have been looking right through her. He wore his long black hair gathered back in a loose queue, and that scar they all talked about was a bone-white scrawl along his jaw, seemingly tilted at her for inspection. Something defensive about the way he did that. And he’d lost some weight since she saw him last.
“Well.” She forced a laugh, covering, looking for the angle. He’d walked into camp alone, was not even wearing armor beneath the cloak. “I confess I’m a little surprised to see you here, Gil.”
“Yes, I imagine you are.”
“You do know there’s a price on your head now?”
He nodded. “Fifteen thousand ﬂorins. The Sileta brothers came looking to collect last month.”
Somewhere low across Poppy Snarl’s shoulders, a faint shiver came alive. Back in Trelayne, there were the usual tall-growing weed-garden rumors about the whereabouts of the Sileta family. The street said they were somewhere out on the marsh, hiding from the Watch. Or they’d run off to Parashal behind some brothel connection a cousin had there.
Or they’d been eaten by demons.
The street said a lot of things, most of which you had to sieve repeatedly for superstition, wishful thinking, and ﬂat-out lies. But on this occasion the gleaming residue of truth remained: The Sileta brothers, toughest and most feared of the harbor-end ganglords, were currently nowhere to be found.
She shrugged it off, barely missed a beat. “I don’t imagine they’ll be the last.”
“Probably not. It is a lot of money.”
The imperial legate waded in. “Am I to understand that we are here bandying words with an outlaw?”
Ringil shot the man a disinterested glance. “And you are?”
“I do not answer to—”
“He’s the Empire’s vested interest,” Snarl said succinctly. “And these are his sworn personal guard you’re bandying with. Now really— perhaps you’d better tell me what you’re doing here.”
The hollow-eyed stare again. “Can’t you guess?”
“No, I can’t.” She fought down the faint shiver again. Found the threads of her anger once more. “To be completely honest with you, Gil, my best guess up to now was that you’d crawled back to that shit-hole little mountain town you saved in the war. You know, back to where they still think you’re some kind of hero and don’t mind you buggering their sons.”
“Oh, they mind, Poppy.” A thin smile. “Even there, even where they owe me their lives, they mind. But what are they going to do about it? You can’t control a son the way you control a daughter. Can’t just lock him in the house or beat him to a pulp like you can with your wife. Not once he gets older than about ﬁfteen, anyway. Too much chance he’ll hit you right back.”
“They don’t have the cage in this . . . Gallows Gap, wasn’t it?”
“Gallows Water. The gap is above the town. And yes, they used to have the cage. Hung up right there in the town square.” Ringil’s expression hardened. “Except the ﬁrst summer I was there, I had it cut down.”
Small silence. Irgesh and the imperial bodyguards exchanged glances. Everyone seemed to be waiting for something.
“How very . . . ﬂamboyant of you,” Snarl said ﬁnally. “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. But you still haven’t answered my que—”
“I’m here to kill you, Poppy.”
Now the silence came back in like roaring surf. The moment pivoted around Ringil, dizzying, high-fever intensity, like the world rushing away. The legate’s neatly barbered mouth shocked open, the stealthy settling of hands on sword hilts among the—count them off, two, three, four— imperial soldiers. Irgesh, already ahead, less of a ﬁghting threat by his stance, but mistrustful since the stiffening of his mistress when she saw who her guest was. It all fell into place like pieces of a puzzle solved, the geometry of the moment and the ﬁght to come— the heat of the dying ﬁre at Ringil’s back, just the way he’d maneuvered to have it, the men and what they would assuredly do in the next few seconds, and, somewhere out beyond it all, Seethlaw’s voice across salt black emptiness, echoing off sea cliff stone.
I see what the akyia saw, Gil. I see what you could become if you’d only let yourself.
He saw the legate’s signal, ﬁnger-twitch- small, but screaming loud to his senses as a battleﬁeld death. Heard the minuscule grating of imperial blades coming loose all around him. Felt the ﬁght sheet upward like oil-fed ﬂames.
He let go.
The dragon-tooth dagger, dropped from his left sleeve into that hand— he gripped it blade-down, was already spinning, right hand up and reaching past his ear for the jutting pommel of the Ravensfriend at his shoulder. The sword’s rough-woven grip seemed to weld itself into his curling palm, seemed to kick eagerly as he tugged on it. The engineered Kiriath scabbard split along its outer edge, spat the Ravensfriend free as he drew.
The imperials had cleared their weapons, too.
He went to one knee. No thought to the motion; it was as if a revolving storm of forces put him there. Vaguely, he knew a cavalry scimitar went scything over his head. He seemed to unfold from the bisecting line of his own rib cage—dragon tooth curving left and into the nearest imperial’s thigh, Ravensfriend right and under the scimitar’s cut. He supposed it chopped the man somewhere between throat and belly— was moving too fast now to ﬁnd out or care.
And somewhere, Seethlaw, laughing . . .
He left the dagger where it was, came up out of his dropped stance. Got a two-handed grip on the Ravensfriend and reversed his guard. Backed off a pair of blades on the rising edge of his sword and gained himself a couple of steps of ﬁghting ground. The Kiriath steel licked out again, impatiently, took Irgesh across the forehead, and the overseer staggered back howling as blood ﬂooded down his face. It was a sword-tip slash, not fatal, not even very damaging, but in the screaming, red-tinged chaos of the moment, Irgesh could not know that, and would not be given the chance to ﬁnd out. Ringil blocked another imperial blade, got in close on the turn and snagged a leg in behind his opponent’s feet. Hook hard, and the man went over, sprawling backward into the smoking ashes of the ﬁrebed. He yelped and rolled, his cloak catching ﬁre in a dozen places. Ringil closed on Irgesh, beat aside a clumsy cutlass block, and skewered the man in the guts. Twisted the blade and withdrew. The overseer made another noise, low and grinding, and the Ravensfriend came loose in a burst of blood and whatever Irgesh had had for breakfast.
Ringil whirled about snarling. It was like some noise a Yhelteth war cat might make as it sprang. Blood droplets sprayed the air, off the swinging arc of Kiriath steel, ﬁne as summer rain.
The imperials reeled apart, away from the thing in their midst.
One was down, dead or dying or just in shock from that ﬁ rst upward chop into his chest— the Ravensfriend liked bone pretty much as well as ﬂesh these days, and Ringil himself couldn’t say how deep the cut had gone. The others were not in much better shape, one rolling and yelling in the ﬁrebed trying to put himself out, a second ﬁghting to stay upright with Ringil’s dagger in his leg, only one unharmed, and now Ringil moved to meet him.
But they were imperial soldiers, they were a high-ranking imperial’s honor guard. Drawn from altogether ﬁner cloth than Snarl’s march-masters, and not quite what Ringil had been expecting. The man in the ﬁrebed shucked his cloak and rolled clear, would be back on his feet in seconds. The stabbed soldier was reaching awkwardly down, eyes ﬁxed on Ringil like he was hungry. The uninjured soldier stepped forward to cover his comrade, locked up Ringil’s attack. Sour scrape of steel as the blades met. The other man got hold of the dragon- tooth dagger and yanked it out of his own ﬂesh with a single gritted roar. He straightened up, teeth still bared in a savage grin and dragged himself right back into the ﬁght.
At the corner of his vision, Ringil saw Poppy Snarl look out across the huddled slave caravan for her men.
Saw her eyes widen in shock.
No time for that. He met the two standing imperials in a zigzag blur of steel, deﬂected both blades and took a slice across his ribs for his trouble; if the injured man’s leg was bothering him, it didn’t show. Ringil kicked out viciously, tried for a knee. He missed, could not afford the instability or time it would take to try again, dropped hastily back, caught a blurred glimpse of the burned man rushing him from the side, and swung about to meet the assault.
Barely in time.
The Ravensfriend blocked like something alive, took the brunt. The sword chimed and quivered, his attacker’s steel glanced off it, turned the force of the rush a vital couple of inches. Ringil pivoted with it, ﬂashed out a hand on instinct, grasped something, a buckle on a tunic, an edge of stiffened cloth, jerked the man forward off balance. The imperial plunged past him, stumbling. Ringil tripped him, put him down. No time to bring the Ravensfriend down for the kill— the others were on him— he settled for a glancing kick to the downed soldier’s head—
Sensed, somehow, the hurtling edge of steel at head height behind him—
Ungainly sideways leap—over the sprawled body, and just ahead of the scything imperial blade. He felt it touch his queue, ﬂip the bound ponytail of hair, felt the cool wind of its passing. He landed awkwardly, breath caught up, only half convinced his head was still on his shoulders.
And whipped about at guard. Tight grin on his face with how close he’d come.
The remaining two imperials came on. The body of their fallen comrade slowed them down. But behind them, the legate had ﬁ nally managed to draw a sword of his own, was brandishing it not entirely unhandily. And Poppy Snarl was on her knees in the dirt beside Irgesh, scrabbling for his weapon. Ringil felt the balance tilt, felt what he’d planned sliding out of reach, felt—
Straight-line crow-ﬂicker black.
Like a mother hushing unruly boys, but impossibly swift. A rippled ﬂeeting past him through the air, and the two soldiers slammed to a halt, spiked about with sudden, black-ﬂetched arrow shafts. Throat and eye, chest and belly.
Eril’s men, taking no chances.
Yeah— took their fucking time about it, though.
The imperials spasmed, gurgled, and went down, dead or near enough to make no difference. Puff and drift of dust up around their bodies. The man at Ringil’s feet moaned and twitched, but showed no sign of getting up.
Ringil let his breath out. Surveyed his victory.
The legate, clutching his sword at an uncertain guard. Poppy Snarl, crouched beside her slaughtered march-master, blinking at what had just happened. And out among the sea of huddled slaves, Eril’s men moving forward. They wore the assumed garb of the march-masters they’d murdered in the night or the captured slaves they’d imitated coming into camp. They held an irregular assortment of weapons, stolen or already owned, among them at least half a dozen recurved bows drawn to a cautious half-taut readiness. Eril himself led the gathering circle, a bloodied knife in each hand and the matching daubs of close-quarters slaughter still on his face.
Ringil stepped nimbly over the man he’d kicked in the head, booted Snarl sprawling into the dirt as he passed her, and put the tip of the Ravensfriend at the legate’s throat.