PROLOGUE – IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT
If on a winter’s night a traveller like you finds shelter in one of the inns that line the trade roads of Tristia, sitting close to the fire, drinking what is quite likely watered-down ale and doing your best to stay out of the way of the local bully-boys, you might chance to see a Greatcoat wander in. You’ll know him or her by the long leather coat of office, weathered to a deep brown and tempered by a hint of dark red or green or sometimes even blue.
He or she will do their best to blend in with the crowd. They’re good at it – in fact, if you look over there to your left, sitting alone in the shadows you’ll see a second Greatcoat. The one at the door will almost certainly walk over and sit with the first one.
If you sidle over (carefully, now) and listen in to their conversation, you’ll hear snatches of stories about the cases they once judged in the cities, towns and hamlets throughout the countryside. They’ll talk about this Duke or that Lord and which crimes they perpetrated on their people this time. You’ll learn the details of how each case was decided and whether the Greatcoat had to fight a duel in order to get the verdict upheld.
Watch these two long enough and you’ll begin to notice the way that they check out the room every so often. They’ll be gauging the other patrons, looking for potential trouble. Look closer at those coats and you’ll see a faint pattern in the leather: that’ll be the bone plates sewn into the lining, hard enough to withstand arrow, blade or bolt, and yet the coat itself moves as naturally as the one you yourself might be wearing. If you ever got the chance to reach inside, you’d find hidden pockets – some say a hundred of them – all filled with tricks and traps and esoteric pills and powders designed to give them an edge, whether fighting a single man or a mob. And while the swords hidden beneath the coats aren’t fancy, you’d find them well-oiled, well-honed and more than pointy enough to do the job.
Legend has it the Greatcoats began as duellists and assassins-for-hire, until some benevolent King or Queen brought them under the command of the monarchy to ensure that ancient laws were preserved in each of the nine duchies of Tristia. The Dukes, quite naturally, responded to this unwanted intrusion by devising the most painful deaths they could imagine for any Greatcoats their Knights defeated in combat. But for every Greatcoat killed, another would rise up to take the mantle and continue the job, going around the country annoying the nobility by enforcing laws that the nobility found inconvenient. That was until just over a hundred years ago, when a group of the wealthier (and more determined) Dukes hired the Dashini – an order of assassins who never failed to spread corruption, even in a place already as corrupt as Tristia – to provide them with a more enduring means of discouraging dissent. They called it the Greatcoat’s Lament.
I will not bore you with the details, gentle traveller, for they are unfit for conversation between folk of good breeding. Suffice it to say, after the Dashini finished giving the Lament to the last Greatcoat they’d managed to catch, no more came forward to take up the mantle . . . at least, not for nearly a century, not until an overly idealistic young king named Paelis and a foolhardy commoner named Falcio decided to push back against the tide of history and recreate the Greatcoats.
But that’s all done with now. King Paelis is dead and the Greatcoats have been disbanded these last five years or more. The two you are watching risk death and worse any time they attempt to fulfil their traditional duties. So instead they will simply finish up their drinks, pay their tab and wander off into the night. Perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of their smiles as they reassure each other that the Greatcoat’s Lament is just one of those stories told by travellers in front of a warm fire on a cold night; that even if it had once existed, no one alive today would have the faintest idea of how to inflict it. But they – and you – would be wrong. For you see, I have it on extremely good authority that the Greatcoat’s Lament is very real, and that it is even more painful and terrible than even the most horrifying stories made out. I would tell you more, but unfortunately, the ‘good authority’ I mentioned is me.
My name is Falcio val Mond, one of the last of the King’s Greatcoats, and if you listen very carefully you might still be able to hear me screaming.
CHAPTER 1: THE WAITING GAME
I can count on one hand the number of times in my adult life when I’ve awakened peacefully and happily, without either fear of imminent death or sufficient annoyance to make me want to murder someone else. The morning four weeks after Patriana, Duchess of Hervor, had poisoned me was not one of those times.
Despite the fog clogging my head and dulling the sounds in my ears, I recognised Brasti’s voice.
‘He’s not dead,’ said another, slightly deeper voice. That one belonged to Kest.
The light thump-thump of Brasti’s footsteps on the wooden floor of the cottage grew louder. ‘Usually he comes out of it by now. I’m telling you, this time he’s dead. Look: he’s barely breathing.’
A finger prodded at my chest, then my cheek, then my eye.
You might be wondering why I didn’t simply stab Brasti and go back to sleep. First, my rapiers were ten feet away, lying on a bench next to the door of the small cottage we occupied; second, I couldn’t move.
‘Stop poking at him,’ Kest said. ‘Barely breathing still means alive.’
‘Which is another thing,’ Brasti said. ‘Neatha’s supposed to be fatal.’ I imagined him wagging his finger at me. ‘We’re all happy you survived it, Falcio, but this lying about each morning is highly inconvenient behaviour. One might even call it selfish.’
Despite my repeated attempts, my hands refused to reach out and wrap themselves around Brasti’s throat.
The first week after I’d been poisoned, I’d noticed a slight weakness in my limbs – I moved more slowly than usual. Sometimes I’d try to move my hand and it would take a second before it would obey. But instead of getting better, the condition had gradually worsened and I found myself imprisoned in my own body for longer and longer each morning after I awoke.
A hand on my chest pressed down with a great deal of pressure: Brasti was leaning on me. ‘But Kest, I think you have to agree that Falcio is largely dead.’
There was another pause and I knew Kest was considering the matter. The problem with Brasti is that he’s an idiot. He’s handsome and charming, he can outshoot any man or woman with a bow, and he’s an idiot. Oh, you wouldn’t think so at first; he’s a fine conversationalist and uses many words that sound like the sort of words smart people use. He just doesn’t use them in the right context. Or even the right order.
The problem with Kest, though, is that while he is extremely intelligent, he thinks that ‘being philosophical’ requires giving any idea due consideration, even if it’s utterly nonsensical and being uttered by the aforementioned idiot.
‘I suppose,’ Kest said finally, and then redeemed himself marginally by adding, ‘But wouldn’t it be more correct to say he’s somewhat alive?’
More silence. Did I mention that the two fools in question are my best friends, fellow Greatcoats, and the men I was counting on to protect me in case the Lady Trin picked that precise moment to send her Knights after us?
I suppose I should get used to calling her Duchess Trin now. After all, I’d killed her mother, Patriana (yes, the one who’d poisoned me) – in my defence, I was trying to protect the King’s heir at the time. I suspect that’s the real source of Trin’s grievance with me, as the presence of a genuine monarch gets in the way of her scheme to take the throne for herself.
‘He’s still not moving,’ Brasti said. ‘I really think he might be dead this time.’ I felt his hand brush a rather private part of my body and realised he was searching my pockets for money – which proves yet again that hiring a former poacher to be a travelling magistrate had not necessarily been one of the King’s best ideas. ‘We’re out of food, by the way,’ he said. ‘I thought those damned villagers were supposed to be bringing us supplies.’
‘Be grateful they’re letting us hide here in the first place,’ Kest said placidly. ‘Feeding more than a hundred Greatcoats is a heavy burden for a village this small. Besides, they did bring food – from their winter caches in the mountains, just a few minutes ago. The Tailor’s managing distribution.’
‘Then why don’t I hear brats running around screaming and annoying us, asking to borrow our swords – or worse, play with my bows?’
‘Perhaps they heard you complaining? They left their families in the mountains this morning.’
‘Well, that’s something anyway.’
I felt Brasti’s fingers pulling the lid of my right eye back and white light blinded me. Then the fingers went away and the light disappeared.
‘How long until Falcio’s mostly alive and no longer entirely useless? I mean, what happens when Trin’s Knights learn about this? Or Dashini assassins? Or anyone else, for that matter?’ Brasti’s voice was growing more anxious as he spoke. ‘You name any group of people out there who know how to kill a man horribly and I’ll bet you good gold that Falcio’s made an enemy of them. Any one of them could—’
I felt my heart moving faster and faster, and tried to force my breathing to slow down, but panic was beginning to overtake me.
‘Stop talking, Brasti. You’re making him worse.’
‘They’ll come for him, Kest, you know it – they might even be coming now. Are you going to kill every single one of them?’
‘If that is what’s required.’ You can hear a coldness in Kest’s voice when he talks that way.
‘You might be the Saint of Swords now, but you’re still just one man. You can’t fight an army. And what happens if Falcio’s condition gets worse and he just stops breathing? What happens when we’re not here and—?’
I heard the sound of a scuffle and felt the bed shake a bit as someone was pushed up against the wall.
‘Take your Gods-damned hands off me, Kest! Saint or no, I’ll—’
‘I’m scared for him too, Brasti,’ Kest said. ‘We’re all scared.’
‘He’s . . . By all the hells we’ve been to – he’s supposed to be the smart one. How in the name of Saint Laina’s left tit did he let himself get poisoned again?’
‘To save her,’ Kest said. ‘To save Aline.’
There was silence for a few moments and for the first time that morning I couldn’t envision Kest and Brasti’s faces. It was troubling, as if perhaps my hearing had suddenly gone away too. Fortunately, silence is a condition Brasti’s never been able to abide for long.
‘And that’s another thing,’ he said, ‘if he’s so damned brilliant then why is it that all anyone has to do to get him to risk his life for a girl he’s never met before is just name her after his dead wife?’
‘She’s the King’s heir, Brasti, and if you talk about Falcio’s wife again you’ll discover there are worse things than being paralysed.’
‘I’d take the chance if I thought it would bring him out of this,’ Brasti said. ‘Damn it, Kest! He is the smart one. Trin’s got armies and assassins and damned bloody Dukes on her side and we’ve got nothing. How are we supposed to put a thirteen-year-old girl on the throne with Falcio in this condition?’
I felt my eyes begin to flutter some more, and empty grey started flashing to bright white and back again, over and over. The effect was a little disconcerting.
‘I suppose you and I will have to try to be smarter,’ Kest said.
‘And just how do you propose we go about that?’
‘Well, how does Falcio do it?’
There was a long pause, then Brasti started, ‘He . . . well, he figures things out, doesn’t he? You know, there’ll be six things going on, none of which seem all that important, and then all of a sudden he’ll jump up and declare that assassins are coming or a Lord Caravaner must’ve bribed a City Constable or whatever.’
‘Then that’s what you and I need to do,’ Kest said. ‘We need to start figuring those things out before they happen.’
‘Well, what’s happening right now?’
Brasti snorted. ‘Well, Trin’s got five thousand soldiers on her side and the backing of at least two powerful duchies. We’ve got about a hundred Greatcoats and the tepid support of the creaky old Duke of Pulnam. Oh, and right about now she’s probably having a nice breakfast and going over her plans for taking the throne while we sit here starving, hiding out in this shitty little village watching Falcio do his best impression of a corpse. And I am starving.’
There was silence again. I tried to move a finger. I don’t think I succeeded, but now I could feel the rough wool of the blanket on my fingertip. That was a good sign.
‘At least you aren’t having to listen to screaming children,’ Kest said.
I heard the sound of Kest’s footsteps as he approached me and felt a hand on my shoulder. ‘So what do you suppose Falcio would make of all that? What does it all mean?’
‘It means . . .’ There was a long pause before Brasti finally said, ‘Nothing. It’s all just a bunch of unconnected details, none of which have anything to do with the others. Do you suppose that maybe Falcio just pretends to be clever and no one’s caught on yet?’
I wanted to laugh at Brasti’s frustration, then I felt the small muscles at the edges of my mouth twitch, just a bit. Oh, Gods, I’m coming out of it. Move, I told myself. Get out of bed and go and help the Tailor defeat Trin’s army. Put Aline on the throne, and then get out of this business of politics and war and go back to judging land disputes over whose cow farted on whose field, and chasing down the occasional corrupt Knight.
A tightness in my stomach made me aware of how hungry I was and I realised Brasti wasn’t the only one ready for a hearty breakfast. Food, I thought, then figure out how to save the world. I was glad I wouldn’t have to do it while the villagers’ screaming brats ran around wanting to play at being Greatcoats with us, demanding our swords and trying our patience.
Which was odd. Why didn’t the villagers bring their children? There wasn’t much danger to the village – the Tailor had sent out scouts and none had reported sighting anything more than a few handfuls of Trin’s men – not enough to cause us grief. Come to think of it, where were the rest of Trin’s men? They might have been on missions, but surely they’d have been recalled as soon as anyone knew we were here? And the children . . .
‘Swords!’ I shouted.
Well, ‘shouted’ is a bit optimistic, given my tongue was still thick in my throat and I could barely move my lips. My eyes opened, though, which was good.
Brasti ran over to me. ‘Whores? What are you talking about?’
‘Do you suppose he means that woman from Rijou? The one who saved his life?’
‘You might be right,’ Brasti said, awkwardly brushing a hand across my head. ‘Don’t worry, Falcio. We’ll find you another whore just as soon as—’
‘Swords, you damned fools,’ I mumbled. ‘Swords!’
‘Help him up,’ Brasti said. ‘I think he said “hordes”. Maybe we’re about to be attacked.’
Kest put his arm around my shoulders and helped me off the bed and onto my unsteady feet. Damn it, I was moving like an old man.
Brasti picked up my rapiers from the bench and handed them to me. ‘Here. You should probably have your swords ready if we’re going to get into a fight, don’t you think?’
I would have killed both of them, were it not for the fact that I was fairly sure someone else was about to do it for me.
Knight’s Shadow © Sebastien de Castell, 2015