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Sky of Swords

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The grim school of Ironhall takes in unwanted, rebellious boys and five years later sends forth the finest swordsmen in the world, the King of Chivial‘s Blades. Bound to absolute loyalty by a magical sword-stroke through their hearts, they stand ready to defend the King or whomever else he designates against all perils, whether human or sorcerous. Each book in this trilogy stands alone, but together they make a larger story. Sky of Swords: The third "Tale of the King‘s Blades" features Princess Malinda, who made brief appearances in both The Gilded Chain and Lord of the Fire Lands. A lonely child growing up in the loveless, intrigue-ridden court of King Ambrose soon learned to fight for her rights, but even her wit and courage could not withstand her father‘s tyranny. Her infant brother Amby was the heir, so a princess was unnecessary and could be married off to any man the king chose. When Ambrose agreed to end an inconvenient war by giving her away to the most notorious pirate ever to sail the seas, she could only submit. Then her father‘s sudden death made little Amby king and Malinda the heir. To save her vulnerable brother and herself, she must battle unscrupulous traitors plotting to seize the throne. In this nightmare of intrigue the only people she could be sure of were the Blades of the Royal Guard. Bound to absolute loyalty by a magical ritual of a sword stroke through the heart, they were men she could trust to the death‹or to love. Yet the Blades themselves were in danger as the people rose against them and a rebel army marched on Ironhall. Soon the question was not whether the Blades could save Malinda, but whether Malinda could save the Blades.

Review

" An enormously clever and impressive reshuffle, whether you regard the final twist as a brilliantly contrived sleight or an outrageous swindle: for panache, style, and sheer storytelling audacity, Duncan has few peers." - Kirkus Reviews

" Malinda is a worthy addition to fantasy's phalanx of valiant ladies. " - Booklist

" Combining sturdy characterization and gripping suspense, Dave Duncan spins a tale of royal treason, murder and magic... Fans of medieval drama and fantasy will enjoy this sword-scraping adventure." - Publisher's Weekly

" Duncan manages to tie all of the conspiracies and plots within plots into a satisfying finish to what is probably his best series to date. " - SF Chronicle

" . . . Intelligent humor, believable characters ands quick pacing, as well as [the author's] use of magic to keep things unpredictable, create an immensely enjoyable read." - Realms

" An entertaining swashbuckling adventure. The Blades are charming characters with legendary prowess at more than just swordplay. Malinda is a daring, stubborn, and kindhearted young woman who always acts with courage and aplomb. " - School Library Journal

" ave Duncan knows how to spin a ripping good yarn. From the opening scenes at Princess Malinda’s trial to the climactic battle at Ironhall, SKY OF SWORDS is a page-turner. Exactly what we have come to expect of this versatile and accomplished author... Prepare to be enchanted." - SF Review

" This tale of swashbuckling adventure belongs in most fantasy collections. " - Library Journal

" Malinda's story is full of action, adventure, court intrigue and -- somewhat unusually for Duncan -- quite a bit of steamy passion, which Duncan handles extremely well. Malinda's devoted Blades, especially the loyal Sir Dog and Sir Audley, are all marvelously portrayed. But surely this isn't the end of The King's Blades series. With any luck, Duncan will be writing new installments in the land of Chivial for years to come -- and readers are sure to be lining up to buy them." - Writers Write

" A well written fantasy for those fans who relish an action packed Medieval novel with a touch of magic in the plot. . . Dave Duncan provides the hard core fantasy fan with an exciting swashbuckler." - BookBrowser

Sample Chapter

Chin up and arms swinging, Malinda strode in through the doorway and sped along the hall, heading straight for Grand Inquisitor as if she intended to strangle him. Heels drummed on flagstones and metal clattered as her escort scrambled to keep up, for they were encumbered by their pikes and half armor, and not one of them was as tall as she.

Great Hall in the Bastion was ancient and dowdy, with walls of bare stone and floor of planks. At the best of times it was gloomy, and on this squally spring day every gust puffed giant smoky clouds from the fireplace; the lanterns and candelabras could not raise a glitter from the dignitaries‘ finery. Behind scarlet-draped tables they sat, a row of thirteen commissioners stretching almost the whole width of the room with Grand Inquisitor in the center. A single unadorned wooden chair set in the center of the hall was presumably intended for Malinda, but she swept right by it and kept on going until she came to a halt across the table from the horrible old man. The men-at-arms stamped to a stop at her back and for a moment there was silence.

She had recognized him from the doorway by his height; even sitting he towered over the others at the table, the tallest man she had ever met, a human gallows. All inquisitors affected a glassy, unblinking stare as a reminder that they had a conjured ability to detect lies, but his skull-like features never revealed any expression whatsoever. Her father had appointed him to head the Dark Chamber and on her accession she had confirmed him in office, so he was one of those who had betrayed her. His treason had prospered, she realized; he had been promoted. Red robes and the gold chain around his neck marked him as Lord Chancellor of Chivial; having been locked up for months, she knew nothing of recent events.

"By what right do you presume to maltreat me so?" she demanded. "Sending armed men to drag me here like a common felon?"

"Would you prefer to remain in your cell?" he murmured. Then louder--"Malinda of Ranulf, you are summoned in the King‘s name to--"

"The Usurper‘s name!"

The Chancellor‘s dark eyes were filmy, as if he had spilled milk in them, and his hair hung like white cobwebs, but age had not softened him. "You are indicted of high treason, numerous murders, evil and illegal conjuration, fornication, misprision, conspiracy to--"

"Considering my youth, I must have been exceedingly busy! As rightful Queen of Chivial, I do not recognize the authority of this court to try me on these or any other charges."

His name, she recalled, had been August Lambskin on the night he swore allegiance to her. Now, as Chancellor, he would be Lord Something-or-other. He probably did not see his change of allegiance as betrayal, for he was the typical state servant, an impersonal tool prepared to serve whoever currently wore the crown, without argument or scruple. At the moment his mission was to see her condemned to death, but if he failed and she ever won back the throne that was rightfully hers, he would turn up for work the following morning in full expectation of carrying on as before.

"I will acknowledge nothing less than a jury of my peers," she said.

They had found a way around that argument, of course. "This is not a court, mistress. A bill of attainder has been laid before Parliament, condemning you to death for high treason, diverse murders, evil--"

"You sound like a parrot."

Nothing changed on the skull face. "If this bill is passed by Parliament and signed into law by His Majesty, then your head will be struck off. Parliament has therefore appointed a committee to consider the evidence against you. If you do not wish to testify, then you have the right to remain silent."

Meaning she was under no duress to answer, except that she would be beheaded if she did not. If she did, she would be beheaded anyway. He was also threatening to send her back to her lonely cell, where she had languished so long without conversation or comfort or news of her friends. She would do almost anything to stay here in human company for a while, even submit to the ordeal of being questioned and bullied and browbeaten.

She glanced quickly at the judges--six men to right and six to left, not one under fifty, all in furs and satins, gold and gems, a flock of kingfishers. Half of them were peers, in coronets and ermine-trimmed scarlet robes. The burghers at the outer ends were birds of lesser plumage, but even their grandiose jerkins and cloaks and plumed hats were in clear violation of the sumptuary laws. She knew all of them except two of the commoners, for they had done homage to her, swearing to be faithful and true. Amazingly, several of them were able to look her in the eye even yet. She noted the insipid Lord Candlefen, who was a distant cousin, and the Honorable Alfred Kildare still sporting the regalia of the Speaker of the Commons . . . They had been sent here to condemn her, which they would not find difficult--two days‘ work, maybe three, to pretend they had tried to be fair.

So why bother? Why not just drag her out to meet the ax? Because the amenities must be observed; Parliament must approve the bill, so it would have to be shown evidence of some sort. Then its members could go home to the shires and towns of Chivial and report that the ex-queen had been a monster, and her execution just. Nor was Chivial alone. Rulers of other lands would greet the execution of a crowned monarch with screams of outrage. In the shadows behind the commissioners sat a hundred or so lesser folk: clerks and flunkies and certainly more inquisitors to detect falsehoods, but among them she noted a few familiar faces, men she had seen in attendance on ambassadors and consuls. So at least part of the reason for this mock justice was to convince other lands in Eurania. There would have to be some pretense of fairness, however slight.

"I protest this injustice!" She addressed the chairman, but she was speaking to the witnesses at his back. "I was given less than a full day‘s warning of this hearing. I have barely had time to read the charges against me, let alone prepare a defense. I have been shut up in solitary confinement for half a year without news or servants or even books. I am denied legal counsel, denied a jury of my peers, and yet I am expected to answer for my--"

"This is not a courtroom. Will you or will you not cooperate with the inquiry?"

"I shall happily advise the noble lords and honorable members of the truth of these matters, provided certain reasonable conditions are met. I require that I be given the royal honors due me: a chair of state, a royal title--"

"The hearings are now in session, Mistress Ranulph, and if you remain obdurate, you will be returned whence you came."

He might not be bluffing. This brief appearance might be all they needed to convince the foreign observers that she was still alive and had refused a chance to tell her side of the story.

"Let the minutes show that I testify only under severe protest!" She spun on her heel and strode back to that lonely chair in the middle. There she would have to speak over-loudly to make her case and would be constantly aware of her isolation--all very typical of the Dark Chamber‘s methods.

"The committee will come to order," the chairman said. "Master Secretary, pray remind the noble lords and honorable members of the wording of Clause I."

A weedy voice began to whine behind him. Malinda adjusted her skirts, well aware that her dress fell far short of court standards, for although it was the best she had, carefully stowed away against the long-hoped-for date of her release, moths and mildew had taken their toll. Her jewels had all been confiscated, of course.

Strategy . . . she must think strategy. She must still have supporters plotting on her behalf, although of course they dare do little while she was a prisoner. As long as she lived, rightful Queen of Chivial, the Usurper could not rest easy on his ill-gotten throne. Assassination was what she had expected; for half a year she had waited for poison or poniard or the silken noose. Every new dawn had been a surprise. Public execution was not a possibility she had seriously considered until the warrant of this inquiry was thrust in her hand the previous day. A public trial she had never even dreamed of. Perhaps Lord Chancellor Whatever-his-name-was-now did not have Parliament quite s tame s he would like, if the Usurper had been forced to stage this farce.

Dare she consider the faint possibility that she might not be going to die of it? Alas, when hope flickered, the rage that had sustained her waned and give way to fear, so that the skin on her arms puckered in gooseflesh and her fingers began to shake. She was on trial for her life and the deck stacked against her.

The clerk had stopped.

One of the peers jumped in with a question . . . " . . . that you conspired to effect the murder of your father, His Late Majesty Ambrose IV--"

"No!" she snapped. "I deny that charge utterly."

"How would you describe your relations with your father? Warm? Loyal? Dutiful?"

"It was no secret," Malinda said deliberately. "As a child I was taught to hate him, fear him, and despise him. When I was old enough to make up my own mind, I found no reason to those opinions." After all, he had driven his first two wives insane and murdered the third; his fourth was to be a girl of seventeen, a month younger than his daughter. "I sincerely believe that he was a strong and effective king of Chivial and the realm has suffered greatly from his untimely death. In his private life he was a tyrant, and I never loved him, but his death was not something I planned or desired."

She had never intended to kill him. That had been an oversight.