One final thanks (this week, at least) to Deborah for these excerpts. This is the third and final excerpt from Tad Williams‘ upcoming release–Volume 3 in the Shadowmarch series, Shadowrise. The book will be released in March.
Today’s excerpt is from Chapter 11 (Cut and Thrust):
“Princess Briony,” said Lady Ananka as the servitors cleared away the most recent course, “can you tell me how children are raised in the north?”
A few whispers and quiet anticipatory laughter ran the length of the royal table. Briony wished her friend was beside her, but Ivgenia had been assigned to one of the lesser tables at the other end of the hall and she might as well have been in another country.
“I’m sorry, Baroness, but I did not hear your question.”
“How are children raised in the north?” the king’s mistress asked. “Are they allowed to run wild there, as the Marchfolk allow their sheep and other animals to do?”
Briony smiled carefully. “Not all our animals run wild, Lady, but for those who live in areas where grass grows freely it only makes sense to take advantage of the bounty the gods provide.”
“But it is the children I am interested in, dear,” said Ananka with acid sweetness. “For instance, I was told that you were taught to fight with a sword and shield. Most exciting, I am sure, but to us it seems a little…uncivilized. I hope I do not offend.”
Briony did her best to keep smiling, but it was growing harder. She had not expected the assault to begin quite so early in the evening — they had only finished the soup — but no one could stop this except the king, and Enander seemed much more interested in his wine and the conversation of an attractive woman on his other side.
It is like one of Shaso’s knife exercises, Briony told herself. Combined with playing one of Finn’s invented parts. If I could do both of those, I can achieve this, too. “How could you possibly offend, Lady?” Briony asked the king’s mistress, letting no hint of irony into her words. “When you and His Majesty have so kindly given me a place here, as well as the priceless gift of your friendship?”
“Of course,” said Ananka slowly, as if reassessing her strategy. Another flurry of whispers ran around the table. Those who had been deliberately ignoring Briony for social reasons were now regarding her openly, able at last to indulge their curiosity. “But I inquire because there is something else I wanted to ask. Something that I hoped you could…help me understand.”
Whatever happens, do not be drawn into a fight, Briony told herself. She has the high ground here and all the other advantages. “Of course, Lady Ananka.”
Ananka put a grave expression on her handsome, long-boned face. “Is it true that you challenged Hendon Tolly to a fight? A…swordfight?”
The whispers became something louder and more violent – laughs, gasps, expressions of disbelief and disgust. Women who had never done anything in their lives more strenuous than sewing stared at Briony as though she were some freakish example of the gods’ displeasure – a two-headed ram or a legless cat. The looks on their faces ignited a flame of anger in Briony’s gut, and for a moment it was all she could do not to stand up and sweep her crockery onto the floor.
Every night this woman tormented her. Gods, I wish I had my sword now…!
“If you lose your temper, you will likely lose the fight.” She heard Shaso’s gruff voice as if he stood at her shoulder. “The warrior who can keep his thoughts clear is always armed.” Briony took a breath. “To play calm, you must remember calm.” That had been Nevin Hewney in one of his sober moments. “Bring that feeling to your thoughts. Taste it like a piece of fruit.” She thought of riding the wagon when they had first crossed into Syan, how the great expanse of the Esterian river valley had opened before her like the arms of a welcoming friend.
“I did challenge him, Lady,” she said, her voice light. “I regret it now, of course. It was not seemly and it put a burden on my other guests.” Nothing wrong with a small feint in return, though, was there? “No hostess should ever force her guests to participate in her own bad manners.”
Another quiet chuckle ran around the table, but Briony fancied the laughter might have become a tiny bit more sympathetic.
“You put a sword to his throat, did you not?” asked Ananka sweetly, as though she too sought only to minimize an unfortunate moment.
“I did, my lady,” she said. She was pleased to realize that much of her anger had passed through her like a storm. “I certainly did, and as I said, I am ashamed. But let us not forget, he is the man who usurped my family’s throne. Imagine how you would feel if one of your loyal nobles,” Briony turned with a smile, looking up and down the table, “turned out to be a traitor? Unbelievable, I know, but we trusted the Tollys, too.”
For the first time she seemed to have Enander’s attention. “Did you have no idea, then?” the king asked. “Did this Duke Hendon not live at your court?”
“The duke was his brother Gailon, Majesty,” Briony gently corrected him. “And Gailon was, I must admit, a better man than I gave him credit for. Hendon killed him, too, as it turns out.”
Now the whispers were unleavened by laughter. “Terrible,” said one of the women, an old duchess with a wig like a bird’s nest. “You poor thing. How frightened you must have been.”
Briony smiled again, as shyly and humbly as she could. At the end of the table Ananka’s face was set in a mask of polite sympathy, but Briony had no doubt that the baronness was none too happy with the way the conversation had slipped her reins. “Frightened – yes, of course. Terrified. But I did only what any young noblewoman would do when her father’s throne was in jeopardy. I ran away in search of friends. Trustworthy friends, like King Enander. And again I thank him…and the Lady Ananka…for all they have done for me.” She lifted her cup and bowed her head in the direction of Enander. “May the Three Brothers give you long lives and good health to equal your great kindness, your Majesty.”
“His Majesty,” echoed the others, and drank up. Enander looked surprised but not unhappy. Ananka was hiding her irritation well.
Briony considered it a victory on both counts.