As Bloodfeud is to be released on the 29th of February, I though I'd share a sneak peek of the first chapter with you, both to whet your whistles as well as tantalise your reading tastebuds for what the climax of the Scarlet Star Trilogy holds for you.
This excerpt comes with a gigantic SPOILER ALERT if you haven't read Bloodrush or Bloodmoon.
In the meantime, make sure to follow me on Twitter or Facebook to get updates on the release. You can also sign up to my mailing list and get a free eBook copy of Bloodrush while you're at it.
Without any more ado, here we are! Enjoy.
29th July, 1867
Arriving in any city via its dockyards is like being led to the most glorious of sweet shops, opening the door, and finding all the jars smeared with excrement. Being the most glorious establishment in all the known world, London is guilty of such a swindle.
Her mighty docks were a canyon of disjointed buildings, following every twist and turn of the Thames’ serpentine wanderlust. They formed the gateway to the finest city on earth, and they were nothing more than a dirty, busy barrier between the silt-ridden river waters and the glowing curvature of London proper.
The docklands spared no space for trees or other such idle trinkets. Where there was water, there were ships; and where there were ships, you could find men and coin. Empires are built on such simple exchanges.
It meant every inch of the yards bustled with activity. This was a place where work was long and hard, where the dingy taverns and whorehouses never closed. Night and day held no sway here. People worked until they were told to stop, and drank and rutted until they passed out or it was time to work again. A rinse of seawater, and repeat. A roiling, ever-rotating concoction of work and play.
And just a gunshot from the bilge, ale and sweat was London in all her glory. The city was already shining in the marmalade light of the early sun. The highest spires and turrets caught it with ease; their metal and marble-work glinting as if afire. Arches soared. Flagpoles bristled atop towers, bejewelled by stained glass windows. It was a glorious sight; the sort that pulls at your collar. But the docks were also thick with filth of all kinds, and every traveller must pay his dues on the muddy roads, as well as the swept and cobbled.
The Black Rosa pressed on; engines chugging quietly, sails still flapping even though they’d been drawn in tight to the mast. There was no wind today. Just a lingering fog around the knees; the sort that was so thick you could almost carve shapes in it. It reeked of river-stink and industry, coal dust and log fires. It brought a bitter sting to the eyes after the fresh sea air.
Around the curve of the river, a quieter section of dockyard was spied, and the Rosa slowed, aiming for a spare jetty.
At first there was an argument between the captain and the apparent owner of the dock; but a couple of gold coins made him pipe down long enough for a gangplank to be lowered, for farewells to be said, and for boots to hit the deck.
Tonmerion Hark stared down at the dark wood beneath his feet. He wanted to kick it, to make sure it was real. He settled for shaking his head.
‘Bloody hell. I’m really home.’
‘Yes,’ snapped a voice by his side, in its usual ice-shard tone. ‘And you don’t see me whimpering about it. Now, come on!’ Calidae nudged Merion from his reverie, and pointed him forwards. He tutted and took a moment to work the jelly out of his sea legs, then raised his chin and took a deep breath of salty air. It was almost as if he’d been holding his breath since leaving for Boston, all those months ago. He could even ignore the rotten-egg stench of sulphur, and the stink of bilge.
‘Let’s get to it, then!’ he growled, before setting off.
The young Hark had returned.
As the Black Rosa churned her way back towards the sea, Merion and Calidae explored the winding streets between the dock buildings. They were barely more than corridors; narrow channels carved out of wood and bare brick. It was no wonder the sailors drifted between bunk and bar, never leaving the docks; the bowels of the dockside were just like the innards of a ship. Merion suspected that the wide open spaces of London’s parks would terrify the sailors solid, if they ever dared to venture out of their bilge-soaked kingdom.
Soon enough, muddy boardwalk turned into muddy cobble. Tenement buildings rose to tower over the streets; a patchwork of lives crammed into their boxes.
They passed factory drones of all ages, busy tramping to work; their skinny legs like sleek machine-parts, numbed by practise. Every head was bowed in solemn determination.
Just another day.
Merion could almost hear them chanting it.
They walked by a factory, heard the clang and whistle of metal being pounded and sliced. Then a district of warehouses, with their long, dreary walls. And yet all roads pointed to London’s core, thanks to her clever architects, who lived so long ago. It took a shade less than an hour to break into the city proper, where the buildings sat a little straighter, and where top hats and coat-tails were ubiquitous.
Merion began to smile. He was supposed to be keeping a straight face beneath his hood, but this was a landscape he knew well; one he had traipsed for years. The flagstones were his again, and would be from now on. That alone was cause for celebration. No more baking sand, bothersome prairie, or scraping rock. No railwraiths or tornadoes. Just sheer London walls and acres of city street.
They headed further north and then west onto the grand Kingsroad. It was a route lined by trees and flagpoles, drenched in marble, filled with crowds of important-looking people. Gurgling horns and urgent cries filled the air. Carriages jostled for space, along with the people, and Merion wallowed in the waterfall of noise. It was good to feel the urban pulse again. He heard a commotion of pigeons and lifted back his head to watch a flock skim the treetops, hunting crumbs. A new spire was being hammered together to the north; another huge feat of engineering. Its scaffolding was already pawing at the powder blue of the morning sky.
A sharp whack on the arm brought his eyes back to the streets. He grunted. ‘We should get a newspaper,’ he suggested, nudging Calidae back. She took a moment to think; something she did when she had no argument to offer, as if the suggestion was her own idea. Then, she drifted through the crowds and found a paperboy, hollering his lungs out at the next corner. Calidae flicked him a few coppers, snatched a paper from his hand, and returned to Merion, reading aloud as they walked on.
‘War,’ she said. ‘“Now in our second week of war, support has remained strong for the new Lord Protector Dizali. With the royal conspiracy insistent on hanging over this country, and while Her Majesty continues her silence, he continues to drive the war effort, claiming early victories in…” somewhere or other.’
‘Looks like he’s been busy,’ said Merion. ‘We’ll have to catch up. See if anything’s changed.’
‘A lot can happen on the other side of the world in a week, Hark.’ Two weeks on a boat and her mood had barely softened. She had cracked slightly here and there, but not enough to melt the glacier in her heart. At least he had managed to stop staring at her scars. The twinge in his stomach was now barely noticeable, though whether it was guilt or empathetic pain, he still hadn’t decided.
‘Explain the queen part to me,’ said Merion.
Calidae ruffled the pages as her keen eyes traced the stories. ‘Seems the old bag has been conspiring with the Tzar, in true royal style. Treason. There seems to have been a spate of it recently.’ A pause. ‘A Lord Umbright, too. He was hanged recently. You and your father are mentioned more than once.’
‘Yes,’ Merion kicked an errant cobble. ‘I expected as much.’
‘“And still the queen refuses to show her face. No word has come from the Palace of Ravens since the failure of the Rosiyan assassination attempt on Lincoln’s life, and the discovery of her treacherous ways.”’
‘What paper is that?’
‘The Empire Watchful.’
‘May I continue?’
Calidae read some more to herself. ‘Looks to me like Dizali set her up.’
‘No loose threads.’
‘Ends, Merion, and I’m afraid you are not going to like the next section.’ She almost sounded pleased with this.
More rustling of paper as they trod the cobbles, striding in unison. ‘Well, before Dizali uncovered the royal treachery, he had the Queen’s Presence thrown out of the Emerald House and called for a complete abdication, on the grounds that she was warmongering. He had a lawyer sign the Hark estate over to him, there and then. Something about a “Clean Slate Statute”.’
Merion was overcome with an urge to punch something. He settled for his open palm, thwacking himself hard several times.
‘You think that will help?’
‘No, but it’s better than doing nothing. Which lawyer?’
‘An “executor of the Hark estate”.’
‘That means one of three things.’ Merion eyed a passing troop of lordsguards, a bulbous man swaggering at their centre, mopping his brow even though the sun had not yet risen to paint the streets. A coat of arms was stitched into his black breast. Merion didn’t recognise it through the crowd of guards but he glared all the same.
‘And they are?’
Merion counted with his fingers. ‘One, that Mr Witchazel is dead and Dizali used a stooge. Two, that he was somehow coerced into signing. Or three, that Mr Witchazel has betrayed my family.’
‘We’re prepared for every eventuality.’
‘Better damn well be, after all this time and practice. What does it say of deeds?’
‘Dizali is mentioned to be the ward, not the owner. “The House looks forward to the recovery deeds”.’
‘Good. Very good.’
Calidae folded the paper and stowed it under her arm. She pulled her hood lower as they strode deeper into the heart of the city. In the distance they could see the dark towers of the Palace of Ravens, and the Bellspire, commanding all.
‘I wonder what the Queen supposedly did?’ said Calidae.
‘I haven’t the foggiest. But the fact that Dizali can fell a Queen doesn’t exactly stir any warm feelings inside me.’
‘We’ll have to discuss your insides another time. We’re close.’ Calidae raised a finger. ‘See?’
Merion followed her arm and nodded. ‘Just as I remember.’
On the corner where the Kingsroad met the Marble Mile, just on the edge of Westminster, he spied the blue and white flag of the constabulary, hanging limp in the still air. Merion remembered standing outside of it, not so long ago in the grand scheme of things, gazing up at the granite clouds and wondering where his life had just vanished to.
‘Right you are.’ The boy rubbed his hands and began to peer through the crowds, looking for something else. It didn’t take long to find. ‘There!’
Calidae nodded. Their target was a stately-looking market stall, proffering necklaces and bracelets to the finer dressed women of the city streets. Merion pulled his hood further down over this face. Before she could move away, he put a hand on her arm and fixed her with a hard look. ‘Remember our agreement. He sees a trial. No knives. No guns. And no chairs. You and I will settle our business once it’s over.’
‘I know our agreement, Hark,’ she hissed, before throwing her hood back and marching off as if she owned those cobbles, as if she too had a troop of lordsguards surrounding her. Like every Empire lady can.
‘Let’s hope so,’ he said.
Merion followed in her wake, a dozen feet behind. Her posture and confidence drew as many stares as her scars. The ship’s doctor had done some good for them, but only in healing the parts that were not refusing to cure. Calidae didn’t appear to care. In fact, she seemed to relish the effect they had on people.
The boy paused behind a tree as Calidae halted to browse the glinting wares, hands wandering over the gold and silver and gems. She gave a good show, humming and tutting as she tried on each piece, asking for a mirror or for opinions before discarding them. High-borns are bred, not taught.
Merion eyed a pair of constables moving slowly along the street, hands folded inside their blue leather jerkins, truncheon and rapier side by side at their belts; eyes sharp as blades, darting beneath the brim of their black hats.
Head low, keeping his arms tucked into his pockets, Merion sauntered up to the edge of the stall, relying on Calidae to hold the merchant’s eyes, just as they’d practiced on the ship.
‘This is the one!’ she exclaimed, holding her wrist out to admire the sparkling gold. Merion lunged for it, seizing Calidae’s arm with both hands.
‘Thief!’ she yelled, loud in his ear.
‘I say!’ shouted the merchant, grabbing a broom to pummel and poke Merion. It was a little more resistance than the boy had expected.
With a jerk of the wrist, the bracelet was his, and Merion bounded for the Mile. He made it three lunging paces before he came to a halt against the sturdy chest of one of the constables. Just as he’d planned.
The constable grabbed his arm, quick as a snake, and plucked the bracelet from his grasp. ‘’Ello there. Now what do we ’ave ’ere?’
‘A thief, Corporal,’ said his colleague, wriggling a pair of black iron handcuffs out of his belt.
Merion’s hands were swiftly pinned behind his back. ‘I can see that, ’Iggis.’
‘Fresh from the scene o’ the crime,’ Higgis remarked, as he yanked back the prisoner’s hood. Merion kept his face in a dark scowl. Several of the onlookers were applauding, Almighty bless them. He should have put out a hat to collect coins for the performance.
Merion felt the cold iron encircle his wrist, and then a brisk tug on his collar. ‘Ain’t your day, is it, sonny?’
‘No it ain’t, Constable,’ Merion grunted, suppressing a smirk as he was hauled across the cobbles.
Calidae watched him go, arms fluttering in mock upset, wringing her wrists over and over.
Only she saw his infernal little smirk. Only she was watching for it.
‘Insufferable,’ she mouthed.