Except from Revenge of the Winter Queen

May 26, 2021 | Excerpt

Here is an excerpt from Revenge of the Winter Queen

The fourth book of the Nine Suns

“They even decorate the bloody jails.”

Gaebrel flicked a fingernail against one of the bars of his cell, a solid length of iron as thick as his wrist…which some patient ironmonger had taken the time to shape into vines curling around a wooden branch, with finger joint-sized fairies cavorting between them. The massive ornate lock in the front was shaped like a grimacing face, with the keyhole somewhere in the mouth.

“Suns and Spirits.” He looked around the cell, at the walls and ceiling intricately carved with images of gallows and executions, all rendered in painstaking detail. Filling up most of the back wall was a heavily detailed depiction of a man handing by the neck from the gibbet, Standing beside him were men in official robes of one sort or another, while a crowd around it watched in silence. Whoever carved the piece had taken the time to give each face its own unique features, while the hanging man had a look of repentance even as his head bent at an odd angle.

Morrec, Pohtoli and Gerel squatted on the floor, well away from the wall, glancing back at it with some trepidation. “Jails shouldn’t be this clean,” Gerel said, waving at the freshly scrubbed floor. “A man could eat his dinner off that!”

“You’re complaining there isn’t enough filth?” Gaebrel asked. “Remember some of the places we’ve been.”

“Almost prefer those,” Pohtoli muttered. “This here, it makes my skin crawl.”

Gaebrel rolled his eyes and turned back to the bars. The cell across the way from his held Hurren, who squatted on his haunches, engaged in a deep conversation with the guard. Which was, in a way, the second surprise of the evening.

He was an ursuhli, near seven feet tall, with long curving tusks from his lower jaw that added another foot and a half to his height and bumped against the ceiling as he moved. His fur was a shade lighter than Hurren’s, the stripes in his mane streaked with silver. He wore a kilt of worked leather, decorated with silver and gold studs and wrapped around his arms were twisted silver rings. Gaebrel knew enough about ursuhli to realize this was a fellow of considerable age, judging from the silver threads in his mane, not to mention the size of his tusks. And from the way he rumbled with Hurren, there was some sort of connection between the two.

“Hey!” he called out to the two of them. “I’m glad you are enjoying the conversation, but perhaps you might ask when we’ll get out of here?”

Hurren glanced at him, then muttered something to his new friend. Both bared their teeth, the ursuhli equivalent of a smile.

Hurren then rose up. “We are in luck, Gaebrel.”

“How is that, friend Hurren?” Gaebrel tapped one of the bars.

“This is Ottogor urd Huhampaji,” Hurren said. “His clan has long been allied to mine. Why, my own father fought alongside them twenty years ago, when our clans took the field together against the treacherous scum of the Ippogarga Confederation, may their axes rust and their tusks rot in their skulls…”

“That’s wonderful, really it is,” Gaebrel said, keeping a grip on his temper. “But back to the matter at hand…”

“It will not be long before a decision is made. ,” said Ottogor in heavily accented Haleric. “The Autumn Court men who run this place do not like to keep men locked up for too long, because they have to spend money to feed them.”

“Good to know! But what will happen to us, do you know?”

Ottogor shrugged. “I cannot say. They may let you go with a fine. Or they may flog you. They won’t hang you, that is for certain, they want offworld traders to come back to this place.”

“What about Yasinnic?” asked Morrec.

Ottogor turned to Hurren and asked a question in his own tongue. Hurren answered, miming a punch against his own face. Ottogor bared his teeth and let out a short bark of a laugh. “That is another matter,” he said, turning back to the other cell. “These Valarei hold the red skinned ones in some contempt and your friend punched one of their notables in the face. On top of that, the city burns from a Stonebearer attack, so they will be less inclined to show any mercy.”

“The Stonebearers are a group of revolutionaries,” said Hurren. “Ottogor has told me about them. Kuyei rebels who attack from the shadows. They have been causing trouble across this system for years. Yesterday was their biggest attack yet.”

“The city garrison is going house to house,” said Ottogor. “Anyone with red skin who raises their suspicions is clapped in irons and hauled away. Which is why you lot be turned out soon enough – they need the space. And it’s why my men are pulling guard duty around here.”

“You’re a mercenary?” Gaebrel asked.

“Ottogor heads a company from his clan,” said Hurren. “They are under contract to the city governor for six months.”

“There is a need for soldiers in this system,” said Ottogor. “Many ursuhli have signed up for service. Not many humans though. The Valarei don’t see themselves as that desperate, at least not yet…”

“Is he alive?” Gaebrel asked. “Our friend?”

“Oh…yes, he is, last I saw, which was not long ago.” Ottogor jerked his chin towards a door. “They have him in the next cell block. No harm on him as of yet, though that may change. These Valarei are riled up now and they can be vicious, especially to any kuyei they see as being out of place…”

At that point a door banged open. Another ursuhli came in and spoke briefly with Ottogor, pointing at Gaebrel and the others. “They must be very desperate for space,” Ottogor said. “You are are being freed. Someone has vouched for you.”

“Really? Who?” Gaebrel asked, his suspicions quickly raised. They’d only been on this world a day and knew no one of note.

“Some human. Must be important, Juhyrga says he walked in waving a note and the warden snapped to attention. Asked for you personally.”

“Suns and Spirits…” Gaebrel muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“Do you know this man?” Morrec asked, as Ottogor unlocked the cells.

“What do the holy books say about a man outrunning his sins?” Gaebrel asked with a sigh.

“Gaebrel Harrn!” Orlon Indelaar smiled when Gaebrel stepped out into the morning light. “Once again, I find myself bailing you out of trouble.”

“And once again, I wonder what it will cost me.” Gaebrel crossed his arms, waiting for the rest of his companions to emerge.

“Everything this side of a grave comes with a price,” Orlon proclaimed. “Forgiveness most of all.”

“My soul is my business, priest.”

“I’m sure it is…but I was referring to the charges the city governor would have laid on your head. Smuggling is a serious offense and they found those rare furs you hid under that load of scrap iron. Said charges have now vanished into the wind like smoke, thanks to my intervention.”

“Captain, I’m almost afraid to ask,” said Pohtoli. “Whose is this man?”

Gaebrel let out a deep sigh. “Gentlemen! I present to you Brother Orlon Indelaar…spy, puller of strings and bringer of troubles to honest men like ourselves. But one should expect no better from the Order of Saint Vitek!”

“And what does he want?” asked Gerel, looking at the man with suspicion.

“A great many things,” Orlon replied. “Peace and goodwill across the Nine Suns. A quiet retirement by the shores of the Matiraai Sea on Crannen Ord. At the moment, your complete and undivided attention! At my request, the warden has released you into my custody. He is very sorry for the misunderstanding, did not know that you were accredited as honored guests and agents of the Autumn Court and sincerely regrets any hardships you may have suffered.”

“I certainly forgive for his sins against us,” Gaebrel replying, playing along, “though I am confused as to when we signed contracts for any Valarei in the past day. Pohtoli, do you know of this?”

“My mind is a complete blank, Captain!”

“Morrec, what you say?”

“The Vitekian speaks, the scorpion strikes, who can tell the difference?” Morrec stared at Orlon with undisguised dislike. “We should return to our cells, Gaebrel. It would be safer for us, soul and body!”

Orlon’s smile disappeared. “We are running out of time.” He took out a scrap of parchment and held it out. After a moment, Gaebrel took it. Written on one face were lines in some unknown script, with a silvery seal embossed at the bottom.

“That document established your bonafides as agents of the Autumn Court. It lists you all by name, simply wave it at any guard or official and you will pass without question. But lest you get any ideas, it also declares that you are under my authority. Or you can do as your friend suggests and go back to the cells, in which case you will swing from the gallows by sunset. Your choice, gentlemen.”

Gaebrel grimaced. “I suppose we have no choice.” He slipped the document into his coat, in the same pocket as the medallion.

“Smart man. Follow me, we have a busy day ahead.” Orlon turned and headed towards a gate at the end of the courtyard.

“We’re still missing a man!” Gaebrel called out.

“I know!” Orlon called back. “Your kuyei marksman! He’s waiting for you at our destination! Another reason to come along!”

Gaebrel glanced at the others. “Come along, lads.”

“Gaebrel, I don’t like this.” Morrec shook his head. “Vitekians lie as they breathe!”

“He has us by the rocks. We have no choice.” Gaebrel followed after Orlon. After a moment his companions followed.

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