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The Jaguar Knights

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His name is Wolf. He is efficient and ruthless. They call him the King‘s Killer, because whenever there is trouble in Chivial, King Athelgar sends Sir Wolf of the King‘s Blades to investigate. Now there is very big trouble. Unknown raiders have stormed the hitherto impregnable castle of Quondam, slaying its defenders and carrying off the castellan‘s wife. Wolf‘s own brother has been gravely wounded. Who are these strangers, what are their motives, and who -- or what -- was their sinister cat-faced leader? With the unwelcome help of an inquisitor from the Dark Chamber, Sir Wolf rides posthaste for Quondam. But the answers he will find and the terrible results that will follow lie beyond his wildest nightmares.

Review

" A feast of sword and sorcery, mystery and romance, featuring knights whose wits and words are as sharp as their edged weapons. " - Publishers Weekly

" Duncan as deft as ever ... essential for King's Blades enthusiasts." - Booklist

" The plot doesn't march toward some resolution that will neatly tie all the last knots. Far from it! The Jaguar Knights turns more than one genre on its head and gives them a resounding shaking -- if not a full concussion." - Locus

" Probably the best yet. There's dark magic and light, captures and escapes, devious plots and light humor, and best of all, a story that moves quickly and convincingly toward its perhaps somewhat unexpected climax. Thoroughly good stuff in the spirit of Dumas and Sabitini. " - Don D'Ammassa, in Chronicle

" Duncan has written a highly entertaining, intelligent and compelling tale of worldly and spiritual conflict, finding darker shades than usual in his invented world. The Jaguar Knights is a terrific addition to a series that just keeps getting better. " - Doug Barber in the Edmonton Journal

Sample Chapter

Something was up. The Royal Guard liked to think it knew all the news and heard it before anyone else did, but that day it had been shut out. The morning watch had been on duty for two hours already, but Commander Vicious had not arrived to hold the daily inspection and the graveyard shift had not yet been stood down. They were supposedly attending the King, who was meeting with senior advisors in the council chamber. Absurd! Even during the worst panics of the Then caster Conspiracy, three years ago, Athelgar had never summoned his cabinet in the middle of the night.

Deputy Commander Lyon must have some idea what was going on, but he refused to admit it. Infuriatingly, he just sat behind his desk in the guardroom, reading a book of poetry--Lyon not only read poetry, he wrote it too, yet he was a fine swordsman, subtle and unpredictable. The half-dozen Blades sustaining the permanent dice game under the window were doing so halfheartedly, grumbling more than gambling. Sir Wolf was polishing his boots in a corner--Wolf never read poetry, was never invited into the games, and cared not a fig what folly the King was pursuing this time.

The park beyond the frost-spangled panes was all pen-and-ink, stark white-and-black, sun-bright snow and cadaver trees under a sky of anemic blue, for this was Secondmoon of 395, the coldest winter in memory. Nocare, with its high ceilings and huge windows, was a summer palace, impossible to heat in cold weather. The King had moved the court there on some inexplicable whim and could not return it to poky old Greymere as long as the roads were blocked by snowdrifts. Courtiers slunk around unhappily, huddled in furs and muttering under their smoky breath.

Innumerable feet shuffled past the guardroom door: gentry, heralds, pages, porters, stewards, White Sisters, Household Yeomen. No one paid any heed until a rapid tattoo of heel taps raised every head. Blades knew the sound of Guard boots, and these were in a hurry.

Wolf went on polishing his left one.

In marched Sir Damon, still wearing his sash as officer in charge of the night watch. The kibitzers by the window exchanged shocked glances. The matter was much more than routine if Sir Vicious had sent a senior Blade as messenger, instead of a junior or just a page.

Damon glanced around the room, then bent to whisper something to Lyon. Lyon turned to Wolf.

"Leader wants you."

Wolf put foot in boot and stamped. "Where?"

Damon said, "Council Chamber. He‘s still with the Pirate‘s Son."

At the dice table, eyebrows rose even higher. The Pirate‘s Son was King Athelgar. It was common knowledge that Vicious preferred to keep Sir Wolf out of the King‘s sight, so if Wolf was wanted now, it was because the King had called for him by name.

Wolf was the King‘s Killer.

Ignoring the rabble‘s surprise, Wolf strode across to the mirror and looked himself over with care. Like all Blades he was of middle height, slim and athletic, but he was invariably the best-turned-out man in the Guard--boots and sword belt gleaming like glass, not a wrinkle in his hose nor speck of dust marring his jerkin. He adjusted the feather in his bonnet an imperceptible amount and turned away. He did not examine his face. No one looked at that horror unless they must.

Exchanging nods with a lip-chewing Lyon, he strode out into the corridor, and Damon fell into step beside him. Together they marched along marble corridors, past statuary and tapestries. Courtiers stared with interest at two senior members of the Royal Guard moving at an urgent clip. Word that the King had sent for the infamous Sir Wolf would spread like fire in dry grass.

So what was up? The last time Wolf had been summoned to the royal presence, Athelgar had named him--over Leader‘s objections--to lead the Elboro mission, which had required him to kill two brother Blades. It had not been the first such filthy job the Pirate‘s Son had given him, either, and Wolf‘s written report afterwards had let Athelgar Radgaring know exactly what he thought of his liege lord. Moreover, since Leader had not ordered him to rewrite it, it had warned His Majesty that others shared those opinions. The Guard had been shorthanded back then, else Wolf might have been thrown in a dungeon for some of the comments in that report. In the two years since, Vicious had kept him well away from the King.

What had changed? Well, the guard was up to strength now, so one possibility was that Athelgar was going to award him the Order of the Royal Boot. That was highly unlikely. Knowing how Wolf felt about him, Athelgar was more likely to keep the King‘s Killer bound to absolute loyalty forever--safer that way. Another possibility was that the Pirate‘s Son wanted someone murdered. Blades were bound by oath and conjuration to defend their ward from his enemies, not to commit crimes on royal whims, but defense could cover a multitude of nasty situations.

Wolf saw anger in Damon‘s tightly clenched jaw. Damon was a decent man, not one of those who carried grudges against the King‘s Killer.

"Any hints, brother?"

"Dunno anything. Huntley and Flint rode in about four hours ago."

"Ah! And Leader wakened the Pirate‘s Son?"

"They‘ve been in council ever since. No one‘s allowed in or out except inquisitors. A plague of inquisitors!"

That news merely deepened the mystery. Sir Flint and Sir Huntley were typical examples of Blades who failed to find a real life after being knighted and discharged from the Guard. Both men were in their fifties, idling away years at Ironhall, instructing boys in fencing and horsemanship, yet still hankering after the sins of the city. Whenever Grand Master needed a dispatch taken to Court, men like Flint or Huntley would accept couriers‘ wages, knowing that the skilled young pimps of the Guard would always find them some of what Ironhall lacked.

So whatever had provoked this emergency had originated at, or near to, Ironhall. Although it was officially headquarters of the Loyal and Ancient Order of the King‘s Blades, in practical terms it was only a school and orphanage, a factory for turning unwanted rebellious boys into the world‘s finest swordsmen. Wolf could imagine nothing whatsoever that could happen there to provoke a middle-of-the-night meeting of the King in Council.

He could guess why he had been summoned, though. When the weather was this bad near Grandon, it must be mean as belly worms up on Starkmoor. Grand Master would not have sent anyone on such a journey unless the matter was supremely urgent, and he had thought the trek perilous enough to send two of them. Most likely his despatch required an answer, and Athelgar had decided to give his least favorite Blade the putrid job of riding posthaste to Ironhall over snowbound roads in this appalling cold. That would be a typical piece of royal spite.

There were Blades on duty even outside the anteroom, which was not usual. The rest of the graveyard shift was sprawled around on the chairs inside it, sulky and unshaven. They looked shocked when they saw the man Damon had fetched. Damon halted, Wolf kept going. Sir Sewald had the inner door; he tapped and opened it so the newcomer could march straight in without having to break stride.

The Cabinet Chamber was large but gloomy, newly repaneled in wood like molasses and furnished with spindly chairs from some lady‘s boudoir. Athelgar had terrible taste and his expensive renovations were methodically ruining every palace he owned.

Since his summons had officially come from Commander Vicious, Wolf could go straight to him and ignore the King, always a pleasure. He stamped boots and tapped sword hilt in salute. Dark and menacing as one of the bronze memorials along Rose Parade in Grandon, the Commander was standing well inside the chamber, so he had been taking part in the talk, not just being an ornamental doorstop. Vicious was notoriously taciturn, but had not always been so. The facial scar that made speech physically painful for him was a memento of the Garbeald Affair, another of the King‘s follies. His vitriolic hatred of inquisitors dated from that same disaster.

Maps, papers, and dirty dishes littered the central table. Lord Chancellor Sparrow stood on one side of the crackling fire, the Earl Marshal sat bundled in his wheeled chair on the other, and Grand Inquisitor were by the window, being extra-inscrutable. Grand Inquisitor were twins, indistinguishable. All inquisitors seemed foreboding, with their black robes, sinister reputation, and unblinking stare, but to have two of them doing it at you was twice as bad. The Guard called them the Gruesome Twosome.

Sparrow was a perky, beak-nosed little man, more of a pompous robin than a cheeky sparrow, but rated a better-than-average chancellor. He feared Athelgar not at all and often quashed his mad notions before they did too much harm. The Earl Marshal, old as the ocean and crippled with gout, was asleep. A spidery clerk crouched over a writing desk, busily wielding a quill.

Flint and Huntley were slumped on chairs in a far corner. They looked exhausted and were probably chilled to the bone over there, too. They had earned some sleep, and keeping them from it was carrying security to absurd lengths.

And the Pirate‘s Son . . . as always, Athelgar was wandering, restless as a dog with fleas. He was not his usual splendid self. His hose were rumpled, he wore no jewelry, and his hair--dyed a respectable Chivian brown--was badly in need of brushing. Even his goatee, which he left its original Baelish red, looked somehow bedraggled. He had just turned twenty-five and was about to celebrate the fifth anniversary of his accession.

"Sir Wolf, sire," Vicious said.

Wolf turned and performed the gymnastics of a full court bow.

"Ah, Wolf." Athelgar headed to the fire. "We have bad news. Your brother has been seriously injured. We are distressed to impart such dire tidings."

That could not explain the emergency. The King had no interest whatsoever in the well-being of an obscure private Blade, whom he had not seen for years, who was not even a member of his Guard.

I know how you weep for him, Wolf did not say, since you‘ve kept him locked him up on Whinmoor all these years. "Your Majesty is kind. Injured by whom?" Blades did not meet with accidents.

The uninvited query made the King spin around and glare. "That remains to be discovered. Three nights ago, Quondam was attacked by persons unknown. Sir Fell and Sir Mandeville are slain."

Wolf gaped, shocked into silence. Lynx wounded, two other Blades dead--there should be a dozen corpses lying around as evidence, so why was the criminals‘ identity in doubt? And Quondam? Quondam, on Whinmoor, was absolutely impregnable, a fortress that had never been taken by storm or siege. If this was not a bizarre joke, it must be the start of an invasion. Or armed rebellion. The emergency snapped into focus.

Moreover, the King was scared. In Wolf‘s studied opinion, most people could lie to ears, but not to eyes. If you knew how to look, you could learn a man‘s feelings more truly from the way he held his chin and moved his eyes than you ever could from his words. All really good swordsmen had some of this skill, even if they were unaware that they were reacting to the twitch of an eyelid flagging a lunge before their opponent‘s foot began to move; it was why Ironhall discouraged dueling masks during training. Grand Inquisitor were unreadable, of course, but the Lord Chancellor was usually fairly legible and Athelgar displayed his feelings like heraldic banners. With shoulders hunched, wrists crossed low, and teeth set, he was proclaiming worry in fanfares. Sparrow was chewing his lip. Even Vicious was not standing with his hands confidently behind his back as usual, but looking rather as if he were poised to leap to his ward‘s defense. If this tale was a hoax, the King and his most senior advisors were not in on it.

"A sizable force," Athelgar said. "Gone already. Their tracks led to the beach."

"Raiders, sire? Baels?"

"Not Baels!" snapped the royal Bael. "These were definitely not Baels!"

Wolf bowed and waited to hear why the King was so sure and who else could have pulled off such a feat.

The King did not explain. "Baron Dupend was seriously wounded. At least a score of his men were killed, and Grand Master thinks about as many of the attackers. The Baroness was abducted." He paused to stare out the window. "That appears to have been the sole motive for the assault--to kidnap the lady."

Wolf resisted an urge to tell his sovereign lord he was out of his mind. Why should anyone storm one of the most formidable strongholds in all Eurania to carry off a woman guarded by three Blades and a garrison of men-at-arms, knowing the loss of life this must entail? Even if Celeste‘s stunning beauty had survived four years of imprisonment, that would be carrying rape to improbable extremes, and why else should anyone want that trollop? She had no land, no rich relatives, no importance. Nevertheless, the report had come from Grand Master, and for almost a year now Grand Master had been Durendal, Lord Roland. Any Blade would accept Durendal‘s testimony if he said the sea was wine.

"My brother‘s ward was kidnapped, yet he is still alive?" That was truly incredible.

"I said so!" Athelgar was staring at him very hard. "Does this news surprise you?"

Wolf hastily adjusted to the idea that he had been summoned to answer a charge of treason. He looked to Vicious for support and saw suspicion there, too. His path and Celeste‘s had crossed in the past; his brother shared her captivity at Quondam. He struggled to view the grotesque news through Athelgar‘s snaky eyes.

Fortunately he need only speak the truth. "It amazes me. Your Majesty, I swear that I had no prior knowledge of any plan or plot to rescue Lady"--he saw warning signs--"I mean abduct Lady Celeste. The news dumbfounds me. I do not know who could, or would want to, remove her from Quondam, nor who could achieve it. Surely Your Grace cannot question my loyalty? Even if my binding would allow me to engage in armed rebellion against your royal peace--which I do not believe it would--I should never involve my own brother in so dastardly a plot."

"The evidence is not yet clear," the King said narrowly. "We are not certain who injured your brother, nor which side he was supporting."

"I swear I know nothing about this, sire!"

"Grand Inquisitor?"

The one on the right said, "The witness speaks the truth." They never hesitated and never spoke at the same time, but nobody knew how they did it. They did not just take turns.

The weather in the chamber changed for the better.

"We are relieved to hear it," the King said, without looking much pleased. "Then you will wish to hurry to your brother‘s side, Sir Wolf, and we will have you investigate this crime for us." The shocks were coming too fast. Promoted in a blink from chief suspect to chief inspector, Wolf mumbled something about being honored.

"Your first destination must be Ironhall," Athelgar said. "The casualties were taken there, for it has the nearest octogram where they might be healed. Grand Master thinks Sir Lynx will live."

Not will make a complete recovery? Wolf nodded, distrusting himself to speak. Outlawed at twelve, imprisoned five years in Ironhall and four more at Quondam--his brother had never known freedom. Now this.

"And that is about all we know," Athelgar said, pacing again. "Everything else is hearsay. Go and find out the facts! The news must be kept secret, until we know who and what and why. Is that understood, Sir Wolf? Extreme secrecy! Premature disclosure will cause panic and talk of a foreign invasion. It may be a foreign invasion for all we presently know. The Commander recommends you as the best man to investigate. We know," he added sourly, "that you can be discreet."

And ruthless, but no doubt he was hinting that any other investigator might uncover secrets Wolf had known and kept for years. Those would make stale news now, no longer capable of raising the epic scandal they would have stirred up once, yet Athelgar would certainly prefer that his youthful follies remain unmentioned. Spirits knew he had enough others to satisfy anyone. Wolf bowed and murmured gratitude for the royal compliment.

"You will be granted all the powers you require. Go and see to your brother and then proceed to Quondam."

"Your Majesty does me honor." Wolf wondered if he was being appointed royal scapegoat for something. The King thought of him as a killer, but Vicious knew he did any job as thoroughly as possible, whether it involved killing or not.

"To expedite matters, Commander," Lord Sparrow said primly, "pray advance Sir Wolf adequate funds from the Guard‘s coffers and apply to Chancery for reimbursement. A representative of the Office of General Inquiry will accompany you, Sir Wolf."

"But I will be in charge?" Wolf‘s query created an angry pause. It should go without saying that a Blade would not and could not take orders from a Dark Chamber snoop. It also went without saying that the snoop would feel free to ignore, subvert, or misunderstand any orders from a brainless sword twirler like Wolf. Especially Wolf.

"You will report to the Lord Chancellor," the King decreed, "and the inquisitor to Grand Inquisitor."

"Your Grace is setting up two inquiries?"

More glares.

"I do believe, sire," Sparrow twittered, "that Sir Wolf should be given overall authority."

Athelgar nodded grumpily.

Wolf said, "I will also need the help of a sniffer, my lord." This business reeked of conjuration.

"The nearest White Sisters‘ priory," the Chancellor said, "is in Lomouth. Your commission will give you all the authority you need. The Council expects frequent reports, Sir Wolf, but should you conclude that additional assaults are likely, you will issue a general alarm directly to the authorities concerned."

"Who keeps the King‘s Peace on Whinmoor, my lord?"

Sparrow pursed lips. "The sheriff is Baron Dupend himself, but you will speak with the King‘s voice."

"How soon can you leave?" the King barked.

"The moment I receive my writ and the funds, sire." Wolf looked to the Gruesome Twosome. "And my assistant?"

"Inquisitor Hogwood will meet you at the stable, Sir Wolf," said the one on the left.

"We will send your commission there also," said the Chancellor, peering over the clerk‘s shoulder at what he was writing. "Momentarily."

"By your leave, sire?" Wolf bowed to the King and was dismissed.