Here's an excerpt from Sebastien de Castell's soon-to-be-released Saint's Blood, compliments of the folks at Quercus. For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
How do you kill a Saint? Falcio, Kest, and Brasti are about to find out, because someone has figured out a way to do it and they've started with a friend. The Dukes were already looking for ways out of their agreement to put Aline on the throne, but with the Saints turning up dead, rumours are spreading that the Gods themselves oppose her ascension. Now churches are looking to protect themselves by bringing back the military orders of religious soldiers, assassins, and (especially) Inquisitors — a move that could turn the country into a theocracy. The only way Falcio can put a stop to it is by finding the murderer. He has only one clue: a terrifying iron mask which makes the Saints vulnerable by driving them mad. But even if he can find the killer, he'll still have to face him in battle. And that may be a duel that no swordsman, no matter how skilled, can hope to win.
On the Morning of Your First Duel
On the morning of your first duel, an unusually attractive herald will arrive at your door bearing a sealed note and an encouraging smile. You should trust neither the note nor the smile. Dueling courts long ago figured out that first-time defendants are less prone to running away if it means embarrassing themselves in front of beautiful strangers. The practice might seem deceptive, even insulting, but just remember that you are the idiot who agreed to fight a duel.
Don’t bother opening the envelope. While the letter might start out with extravagant praise for your courage and dignity, it quickly descends into a lengthy description of the punishment for failure to show up at court. In case you’re wondering, the penalty in Tristia for attempted flight from a lawful duel is roughly the same as that of attempted flight from the top of a tall tree with a rope tied around your neck. So just take the unopened envelope from the herald, crumple it in your hands and toss it into the fire. It helps if you do this while uttering a dismissive snort or even a boisterous “huzzah!” for best effect. Then as the flames feast upon the details of your upcoming demise, place your hands on your hips and strike a confident pose.
The herald might, at this point, suggest you put on some clothes.
Choose trousers or breeches made of a light, loose fabric, with plenty of room to move. There’s nothing quite so embarrassing as having your lunge come up short at the precise moment that your enemy is counter-attacking and he drives his blade deep into your belly just as your seams split at the crotch.
“But wait!” you say. “I haven’t done anything wrong! How did I end up in such dire circumstances when I don’t even know how to hold a sword properly?”
The herald will laugh brightly, as though firmly of the belief that you’re merely jesting, before ushering you out the door and escorting you to the courthouse to meet your secondier.
The law in Tristia, observed in all nine Duchies, requires that every duelist be supported by a second—for otherwise, who would go back and forth between you and your opponent to deliver the necessary scathingly droll insults? If you have no one of your acquaintance willing—or able—to fulfill this sacred duty, and you are too poor to hire a suitable candidate, then you can count on the local Lord or Duke to provide a secondier for you. That’s right: you live in a country so feckless and corrupt that those same nobles who would gladly stand aside as you starve to death would never, ever consider allowing you to be skewered by the pointy end of a blade without a second standing proudly beside you.
Make your way past the twin statues of the Gods of Death and War that guard the double doors leading into the courthouse and through to the large central room littered with exquisite architectural features, none of which you’ll notice, for by now your eyes will be fixed on the dueling court itself. The classical form is a simple white circle, roughly ten yards across, however, in these modern times you may instead find yourself in a pentagon or hexagon or whatever shape is deemed to be most blessed by the Gods in that particular Duchy. Once you’re done admiring the architecture, take a look at the person standing on the opposite side of the dueling court. This is the moment to remember to clench all the muscles in your lower body to prevent any . . . accidents.
Your opponent—likely a highly skilled Knight, or perhaps a foreign mercenary—will smile or grimace, or possibly spit at your feet, and then immediately turn away and pretend to be engaged in a thoroughly witty conversation with a member of the audience. Don’t worry too much about this part—they’re only doing it to unnerve you.
The clerk of the court will now announce the terms of the duel. You might be tempted to take heart when you hear that this duel isn’t to the death, but that would be a mistake. Whichever Lord or Lady you offended has almost certainly instructed their champion to first humiliate you, then bloody you, and finally—and with a grand flourish that will bring the audience to their feet, roaring with applause—kill you.
When this happens, you can rest assured that the presiding magistrate will undoubtedly make a great harrumphing noise over this gross violation of the rules, and will immediately fine said Lord or Lady, although that will be roughly equivalent to the cost of the wine in the goblet they’ll be drinking while watching you bleed out on the floor.
Not really your best day, is it?
Well, that’s for later. For now, take a good, long look at your opponent standing across from you in the dueling court, because this is the part where you learn how to win.
Your enemy is almost certainly a great fencer—someone with speed, strength of arm, exceptional balance, lightning reflexes and nerves of steel. A great fencer spends years studying under the finest masters in the country. You, regrettably, aren’t likely to have had the benefit of any of those fine qualities and there’s a good chance that your only fencing master was your best friend when the pair of you were six years old, play-fighting with sticks and dreaming of growing up to be Greatcoats.
But you don’t need to be a fencer right now; you need to be a duelist.
A duelist doesn’t care about technique. A duelist won’t be walking into that circle hoping to impress the audience or curry favor with their nobles. A duelist cares about one thing only, that most ancient and venerable of axioms: Put the pointy end of the sword into the other guy first.
So as the clerk strikes the bell signaling the beginning of the duel and your opponent begins his masterful display of skill to the appreciative oohs and ahs of the audience, forget about life and death or honor and cowardice; forget about everything except finding that one opportunity—that single moment—when you can push the top three inches of your blade into your opponent’s belly.
In Tristia we have a saying: Deato mendea valus febletta. The Gods give every man a weakness.
Remember this, and you might just survive the day. In fact, over the years that follow, you might even go on to win other duels. You might even become known as one of the deadliest swordfighters of your generation. Of course, if that does turn out to be the case, then it’s equally likely that one day—perhaps even today—that great swordfighter who’s about to lose the duel?
It could be you.
“You realize you’re losing quite badly, Falcio?” Brasti asked, leaning against a column just outside the seven-sided dueling court of the Ducal Palace of Baern.
“Shut up, please,” I replied.
My opponent, whom I’d been informed was undefeated in court duels but whose name I’d forgotten, gave me a little smirk as he flicked the point of his smallsword underneath the guard of my rapier. I swung my own blade down in a semi-circle to keep him from stabbing my thigh, but at the last instant he evaded my parry by flipping his point back up. He extended his sword arm and pushed off his back leg in a quick lunge. Had there been any justice in the world, he shouldn’t have been able to reach me.
“Saint Zaghev’s balls,” I grunted, the tiny cut burning into my right shoulder: a reprimand for misjudging the distance.
Why do I always let myself get tripped up by smallswords?
Despite the name and the delicately thin blade, smallswords are deceptively long. My opponent’s was only a couple of inches shorter than my own rapier, and he’d made up the difference with an extravagantly long lunge of the sort immortalized in the illustrations of the more imaginative fencing manuals.
From the far side of the dueling court Kunciet, Margrave of Gerlac, the rotund, fetid bastard who’d engineered this duel, shouted, “Bravasa!” at his champion. Twenty or so of the Margrave’s retainers joined in the cheer, adding a few sprinkles of “Fantisima!,” “Dei blessé!” and other misapplied fencing terms.
However much this annoyed me, it is accepted practice for a duelist’s supporters to cheer them on—in fact, I was entitled to similar outbursts from my own admirers.
“This Undriel fellow really is remarkably skilled,” Kest remarked.
Undriel. That was the bastard’s name.
Brasti came to my defense, after a fashion. “It’s not Falcio’s fault. He’s getting old. And slow. Also, I think he might be getting fat. Just look at him—barely four months since he beat Shuran and already he’s half the man he once was.”
Always nice to have friends nearby in troubled times, I thought, batting at Undriel’s blade with a clumsy parry that was testament to my increasing exhaustion.
“Don’t distract him,” Ethalia said.
I started to glance over to give her a reassuring smile, but instead felt the heel of my right boot slip on the slick floor and stumbled several steps back, trying to catch my balance.
Idiot! Reassure her by not dying.
Undriel and I circled each other for a few seconds, eyeing each other for signs of any growing weaknesses that could be exploited.
Gods, but I’m tired. Why doesn’t he look tired?
The sound of someone sipping tea drew everyone’s attention: Ossia, the rake-thin, elegantly aged Duchess of Baern was sitting upon her high-backed throne at the head of the courtroom. Aline, heir to the Crown of Tristia, and Valiana, Realm’s Protector, sat on either side, perched on considerably smaller chairs, like children made to attend their aunt. Aline periodically looked up at the Duchess in irritation, but Valiana’s barely contained fury was reserved entirely for me.
I couldn’t really blame her.
What had started as a largely ceremonial event meant to introduce Aline to the various minor nobles of the Duchy had taken an unexpected turn when the Margrave of Gerlac, one of six men hoping to replace the aging and childless Duchess Ossia, took advantage of our presence to launch a legal dispute against the Crown. Through a torturous process of twisted judicial logic, he’d claimed he’d merged his properties with those of the churches on his lands and thus was now—despite still occupying those lands—exempt from paying taxes. He’d even brought in a few token clerics in impressively ornate robes to confirm his story.
Duchess Ossia, ever the diplomat, had elected to defer judgment of the issue to Valiana, who, as Realm’s Protector, had patiently listened to every argument, reviewed every document and then promptly declared the case invalid. Kunciet, as such men do on those rare occasions when they don’t get their way, threw a hissy fit. He began by questioning the validity of the verdict, then Valiana’s standing as Realm’s Protector and then, right in front of us, started making not-very-subtle threats against Aline.
That was when I took over.
Less than six months ago I’d bled buckets to keep Shuran and his Black Tabards from taking over the damned country. I’d risked not just my own life but those of the people I loved best to save those same Dukes who’d been spending a considerable portion of their spare time trying to have me killed. I’d been beaten, tortured and brought to the very edge of death, and all of it so that the daughter of my King could one day take her rightful place on the throne.
Did anyone seriously believe that I was going to let some noxious back-water nobleman like Kunciet make public threats against her?
The hells for that.
Undriel made a rather stunning and unexpected dive below my blade, rolling on the ground and coming up on my left side, then skipping away before I could cut him. In the process, he tagged me again, this time on my left shoulder.
“Should’ve worn your coat, Falcio,” Brasti said.
“Shut up,” I repeated.
Armor is forbidden in judicial duels, but most legal interpretations limit the prohibition to chainmail or plate. Since our greatcoats are made of leather, albeit with bone plates sewn inside, they’ve never been considered armor, not in the technical sense. After all, that was part of the design consideration behind the coats in the first place.
So why wasn’t I wearing mine? Because Kunciet, Margrave of Gerlac, had declared such protection “cowardly,” and because Kest had, through a combination of raised eyebrows and light coughs, apparently agreed with him. In other words, because I’m an idiot and my friends are trying to kill me.
A line of red began to stain the left shoulder of my white linen shirt, an almost perfect match to the one on my right. Evidently Undriel was using me as a canvas and wanted to balance his composition.
The son of a bitch is trying to bleed me to death.
Undriel is what we call in the dueling business a sanguinist: a fencer whose primary strategy is to go for little cuts—wounds that sting and bleed and distract you, until you start to slow down without even realizing it. Sanguinists take their time, pulling you apart bit by bit, until they can end the fight with a single, brilliant flourish—they usually go for an artery so that you end by bleeding out spectacularly all over the floor. It can create quite a stunning tableau for the audience.
I hate sanguinists.
The wounds themselves were more annoying than anything else. Later, assuming I didn’t die, Ethalia would use one of her almost magical ointments to treat the wound, followed by a sticky salve to seal it. One of the many reasons I should already have asked her to marry me was the gentle way she’d pass her finger over the wound to wipe away the extra salve. That experience was so oddly sensuous it almost made you think getting a few more cuts wouldn’t be so bad . . .
I let out an inadvertent and embarrassingly high-pitched yelp as the tip of Undriel’s blade scored another nick, this time on the left side of my jaw.
Focus, idiot. He’s doing a fine job of bleeding you without your help.
Undriel pressed his advantage in a whirling attack, moving the point of his blade in a figure-eight motion, then suddenly striking out toward me like a snake, only to pull back the instant I tried to parry him.
Dashini, I thought suddenly, barely able to keep myself from fleeing the dueling circle. He’s using Dashini tactics.
Undriel caught the look of fear on my face and, smiling, increased the speed and ferocity of his attack. I swung my own blade in a clumsy counter-pattern to keep him from getting too close, but my heavier weapon made it a tiring exercise on my part. I was sweating now, and not just from exertion.
Stop being a fool! The Dashini are dead, and even if they weren’t, there’s no way this prancing pony is one of them. He’s just practiced their style to throw you off-guard.
“So it’s true, what I’ve heard about you,” Undriel said. It was the first time he’d spoken and his voice was as relaxed as if he’d just got out of bed.
“If what you’ve heard is that I’m going to knock you on your arse so hard you won’t be able to sit a horse for a year, then yes, it’s all true.” My bravado would have sounded more convincing had my lungs not been pumping like a bellows.
“Rumor has it that since the Lament you wake up screaming every night, begging for the torment to stop.”
“I wouldn’t know,” I said. “I’ve been having quite a lot of sex lately so I’m usually too tired to remember my dreams.”
Why did I say that? I sound like an idiot. Gods, what did Ethalia do to deserve me?
I swung my rapier in a low arc with enough force to smash the bones in Undriel’s knee, but he skipped out of its path with the easy grace of a dancer before repeating the Dashini pattern that was so unnerving me.
Why was I letting him get to me? More to the point, how was he so good at doing it?
Pieces of a puzzle started to form in my mind: Undriel was intentionally stretching the duel out for far too long. Normally this wouldn’t have been a problem, except that I still tired quickly, the result of the injuries I’d suffered months before. He’d chosen a smallsword, but for the past several years I’d been facing Knights and soldiers who used heavier—and slower—weapons, like warswords and maces. And the Dashini forms, even though they might not be particularly effective when performed with a smallsword, were making me jumpy and clumsy. In other words, he was the perfect opponent to put against me. So what were the odds that Kunciet just happened to have a champion at hand who just happened to incorporate all these disparate tactics into one unique style?
The bastard’s been training for this very fight.
Undriel grinned as if my thoughts were written across my face and came straight for me, and as I stumbled back, struggling to keep out of the way of his swift, dancing attack, the rest of the pieces fell into place. Kunciet hadn’t lost his temper today. He didn’t care about his damned taxes. This whole case had been nothing more than a pretext for him to pick a fight with the Crown and trick me into accepting an unnecessary duel.
What better way to make your bid to become the next Duke of Baern than by killing off a Greatcoat and defying the Realm’s Protector in front of your fellows, all without breaking a single one of the King’s Laws?
Better yet, Kunciet was doing it right in front of the current Duchess—a known ally of the heir—while she sat powerless to stop it.
That’s how you stake your claim to a Dukedom.
In fact, there was only one way he could possibly make an even stronger case: don’t kill just any Greatcoat, kill the future Queen’s favorite. Kill the First Cantor.
That was me, by the way.
Undriel’s smile widened: all the little cuts were starting to slow me down. A single thought went through my head: I swear, I used to be good at this.