Thursday, 6 October 2016

Preview Kalanon's Rising

The first of the Agents of Kalanon mysteries is available for preorder.  Each book in the series features an action packed murder mystery in the fantasy world of Kalanon for Brannon and his team to solve.  Magic, murder, and mayhem, with a backdrop of a country recovering from war and a supernatural battle brewing.

Check out the first couple of chapters below:


he gas lamps on the street corners of Alapra cast deep shadows. Keldan Sandilar skulked in their darkness with a woman of dubious repute. He felt a kind of thrill across his skin as he moved through the back streets, that had little to do with the coolness of the night air. The son of a duke, mere steps from the Kalan throne, rarely had occasion to skulk. Here, in the capital, he had a lifestyle that could be publicly enjoyed. His name was a skeleton key for the highest echelons of society and there wasn’t a craftsman or trader who wouldn’t throw open their doors, day or night, for his convenience.
But tonight was for activities best kept in darkness.
“We really should have done this somewhere else,” he muttered, as they neared their destination. “They know me at the Rose.”
The floral fragrance from walled, scented gardens mixed with that of horse manure and lantern smoke. The sound of laughter and music spilled from up ahead and the full moon slipped from behind a cloud. Keldan’s footsteps sounded very loud on the familiar cobblestones. He was grateful, at least, that he had left the carriage some distance away.
His companion shrugged. “It was your choice, Your Highness. And a wise general fights on familiar ground, they say. Don’t worry, my employer is very discreet.” Her voice lowered to a throaty purr as she added, “And so am I.”
Keldan noticed the front of her cloak had parted and the cut of her bodice offered an inviting glimpse of bosom. He chuckled. “Thus far I have enjoyed our dealings very much. I’m sure that will continue.”
The Blue Rose came into sight ahead and Keldan’s steps quickened. The sooner they were in a private room, the better. The Rose was an elegant, stone and plaster, converted manor house built well before the war. A mosaic path led up to the wide double doors, through an outdoor dining area ringed by balustrades and climbing, steel-hued roses. The area was strung with colored lanterns, giving it a joyful air. There were few patrons outside this time of night, however. The main action was inside, where some of the best singers and dancers the city had to offer were regularly seen on the ballroom’s stage.
 He had almost reached the door when a tall, broad-shouldered figure stepped out into the light. Keldan recognized the man’s easy movement well before the familiar scar came into view. He gestured for his companion to move and tried to step aside before the King’s Champion saw him but, exposed as he was in the center of the mosaic path, there was nowhere to go.
“Prince Keldan.” The man known as Bloodhawk nodded in Keldan’s direction. “Good to see you. How’s your father?”
Keldan forced a smile and walked forward. Of all the timing! “Very well, Sir Brannon. You know Father—he’s a prize stallion. I can pass on your regards when I next see him.”
Brannon nodded. “I’d appreciate it. I don’t get to see him as often as I’d like these days. Nor you, in fact. Would you care to join me for a drink?”
Keldan wondered, as he often did seeing Sir Brannon’s simple clothes and military style haircut, how he managed to stay so well connected at court. The reality and the legend were strange bedfellows in this man. “Another time. I’m afraid I have business to attend to right now.”
The girl giggled at that, giving the perfect vapid impression. She’d arranged her cowled cloak so that the comely shape of her body was unmistakable beneath the fabric, but the details of her face were lost.
Brannon’s expression barely flickered. “Of course.” He inclined his head slightly to them both. “Enjoy the rest of your evening.”
“That could’ve been a disaster,” Keldan murmured as he guided the girl through the back corridors of the Blue Rose to the VIP area and then into the private room he’d booked. “The last thing I need tonight is for a war hero friend of my father to discover me making a deal with Nilarians.”
She pushed back her hood and flashed him a pretty smile as he closed the door behind them. “It’s just a meeting. To be honest, I think you’ll have to be an even shrewder businessman than your father to get a deal with my employer.”
Keldan felt his jaw tighten. He turned his focus to the room, allowing the tension in his body to ease.
It was a room he’d used many times before, decorated in his favorite sky-blue and deep mahogany. The fresco cherubs always made him smile to think of all they’d witnessed in that spacious, four-post bed. Today, there was a box on the scroll-worked writing desk in the corner.
“Yours?” he said as the girl stripped off her cloak and laid it across the bed. The gown underneath clung to her curves.
“My employer’s. I had it sent over earlier to make things easier for us.”
Keldan smiled. “Easy is good.”
Her full lips twitched upward. “It has its advantages. Shall I set up?”
He nodded, moving to the liquor cabinet. A decanter of his favorite wine had been set out and he poured himself a glass while the girl opened the box and laid its contents on the desk. A selection of fabric swatches, pots of pigment, a knife, and some brushes.
Keldan wondered if his father had ever seen the secrets of Nilarian silk. He doubted it. The old man was too bound up in the old enmity to have gotten so close. He was a shrewd businessman, all right, but Keldan’s own skills were nothing to be sniffed at and this extra, personal touch of showing interest in the details would secure the deal. He was certain of it.
He lifted the wine to his lips and savored the taste of successfully out-dealing his father. Delicious.
“I should go and fetch my employer now,” the girl said, turning away from the carefully arranged desk. She lowered her head a little and looked up at him, slyly. “Perhaps I could come back after the business is completed?”
Keldan chuckled softly. “You do that. I’ll be here all night.”
As the door closed behind her, Keldan wondered which outcome he was looking forward to more—the closing of the business deal or the return of the girl. Already he could feel his body reacting to the excitement of both. His stomach fluttered and his skin felt more sensitive, like a cool breeze was brushing through the room. His lips, especially, tingled as though from a phantom kiss.
He took a breath and shook it off. He wasn’t some nervous virgin at his first ball. He tugged at his sleeve, straightened his back, and considered how he would greet the Nilarian.
The tingling in his lips intensified.
Keldan frowned. He took a few steps toward the bed before the tingling began in his legs as well. His toe caught on the thick carpet and he fell, sprawled, face down on the bed.
The sensation spread up his thighs, and crippled his hands and forearms. His tongue felt like a handful of needles in his mouth. Then the tingling was replaced by a terrible numbness, swallowing his body’s ability to move, like a mouse down a cold, reptilian throat. He struggled against it and almost managed to pull himself up before his muscles gave out completely and he fell back on his face.
The world huddled close around him, pressing in with his fear. A shout for help produced only a weak sound, muffled by bedding. After that, it was an effort to draw in enough air just to stay conscious. Time was lost. There was nothing in existence but his own fast-beating heart and loud, rasping breaths.
A rivulet of sweat ran across the skin of his forehead, grazed the side of his temple, and slipped into his wide open eye with the sting of salt. The sensation penetrated his panicked mind: the numbness was wearing off. Perhaps the paralysis would too.
Relief almost deafened him to the sound of the opening door. Footsteps approached the bed.
“Ah,” said a voice. “I believe you’re almost ready.”
Keldan tried to respond but the paralysis had now completely taken his voice.
The footsteps moved over to the desk. “Here we are.” The scrape of the knife blade on the wood as the intruder picked it up was unmistakable. “Now, let’s have some fun.”

Chapter One

rannon was trying to not kill a man. It wasn’t easy. The hot sun pricked at his skin and he blinked salt from his eyes. The air smelled of dust and sweat and the tang of blood. Not a lot. Not like it once was. But there, nonetheless. This tiny battleground, circled with stone and law, was enough to remind him of things he’d rather forget.
The court building was one of the older structures in Alapra, grand with carved masonry and walls painted with historical murals. The magistrate and witnesses needed a clear outcome and, technically, that meant death. They huddled around the edges of the arena in their formal robes, waiting for the moment they could go back into the courtroom and approve the blood result in ink.
Brannon watched his opponent approach again, nose bloody, and pitched his voice so the magistrate wouldn’t hear it. “You can still back out of this, you know, Darnec. Plead guilty.”
The younger son of the Earl of Raldene had been caught stealing to pay for gambling debts and had chosen trial by combat rather than magistrate. He had the pride of his family name and the confidence of his youth egging him on. He almost had the skill to back it up, but not the experience.
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” young Raldene sneered.
Brannon sighed. “Yeah, I would. But, hey, it’s your trial.” Over the younger man’s shoulder, Brannon could see Master Jordell and a small team of physicians. And an undertaker.
Darnec swung his sword and Brannon quickly moved to block it with his own. The clang echoed loudly in the arena. Brannon pushed his opponent’s sword aside with his blade, then twisted it to strike at Darnec’s shoulder. The young man was too quick, and slipped away before he could be cut.
“You’ve been taught well.” Another swing and block, followed by a lunge.
“I may not have fought in your war, Bloodhawk, but I know my way around a blade.” This time Darnec faked a move to the left, then swung for the jugular.
Brannon dodged, and his own sword snaked across the younger man’s thigh, sharp and fast. Red licked out from the blade’s bite. Brannon stepped back. “Imagine if you applied that discipline to the rest of your life.”
Darnec’s eyes stayed on Brannon. He shifted his weight, testing his wounded leg. “It’s a bit late for that now,” he said.
Brannon shrugged. “Perhaps.”
Darnec took a slow breath and the point of his sword drifted slightly downward. Then he took another. Brannon began to hope. The Earl of Raldene would be embarrassed to have a son sent to the mines for thievery, but when the sentence was done, he would still have his son.
“Perhaps not.” With those words, Darnec launched himself as if from a catapult, his sword aimed at Brannon’s heart.
Brannon turned his body and rammed forward his arm, blade vertical, pushing the thrust aside but it sliced his left arm, just below the shoulder. Blood and Tears! The boy was quick.
Or, he thought, I’ve gotten slow.
The fight was on in earnest now. Darnec was a demonic fury, intent on Brannon’s death. His sword thrust and swung again and again. Each time was intended a killing blow. Each time, it was blocked.
Years of battle experience gave Brannon a kind of detached calm when fighting. He could see where the blade was intended to go almost before it began to move. His muscles remembered even when he would rather not. He saw an opportunity in the younger man’s style and lashed out. His sword spiked Darnec’s thigh and pulled back. The muscle was damaged, but he had stayed clear of the artery.
Darnec screamed, but kept fighting.
The opportunity rose again. This time Brannon slashed across his opponent’s stomach, tearing through leather and cloth. Flesh and muscle parted, but not enough to expose entrails.
Darnec clutched at the wound with his left hand, his voice an animalistic sob as it came away covered in blood. He gripped the hilt of his sword with both hands and swung hard.
Brannon double-handed his own sword, bringing it up to meet head on. The arena rang with an awful crack and the younger man’s blade shattered against the Bloodhawk’s.
Darnec’s eyes widened. He stared at the stump of his sword and then at Brannon, his mouth open and wordless.
“Nilarian steel,” Brannon said, hefting his own blade. “I got this in that war you mentioned.” He turned to the magistrate. “I believe that satisfies the requirements of defeat.”
The robed figure shook his head. “Not yet, Champion.”
The sound of boots scuffing the dirt provided a warning. Brannon turned in time to see Darnec lurch toward him, the remnant of his sword outstretched.
“Oh, for Blood’s sake!” Brannon grabbed the boy’s wrist with his left hand and twisted his arm up and away, bringing his own sword up to skewer Darnec’s shoulder. Darnec screamed and his knees buckled. Brannon let go of his wrist and pulled his sword free, giving him a nudge so that he fell forward onto the ground. “Now?”
The magistrate nodded. “Now.”
Brannon turned and strode from the arena. He brushed past Master Jordell and into the medical annex. The old physician followed him in, green robes billowing at the shoulders.
“You’re angry.”
Brannon scowled. “I’m fine.”
Master Jordell chuckled, his face becoming even more wrinkled than usual beneath his mop of white hair. “Then I’d hate to see you irritated.” He gestured and a servant hurried forward. “Here, let this lad clean up your sword and you sit down with me a while.”
Blood dripped down the blade and onto Brannon’s fingers. “How can you expect me to mentor an apprentice physician when I can be called up to do this at any time?” he asked, handing over the sword.
The medical annex of the courthouse was set up to deal with the results of trial by combat. It was a requirement that both parties be assessed here after the fight. The room was divided by a long bench covered in bandages, needles and thread, scalpels and bone-saws. To either side of this was a mirror image of bed and hot bath.
Brannon walked across to one of the beds and sat down.
“The reason I expect it,” Master Jordell said, “is because it is part of what you have dedicated your last six years to.” He hooked a stool from the center bench and sat facing Brannon. “You’re a physician now, no matter what else you are, and physicians at your level are required to take an apprentice.”
Brannon snorted. “You don’t see the hypocrisy in my teaching anyone healing?”
Master Jordell’s eyes grew flinty. “No, I do not. Your role as King’s Champion did not stop you seeking physician training. Nor did your history as a war hero. I don’t see why they should become an impediment to you now.”
“But . . . ”
“No buts. Part of your training is to mentor others as I have mentored you. Just do your duty, Brannon, and stop behaving like a child!”
Brannon sat up sharply. “A child?”
Jordell’s face was impassive. “Clearly. You’ve only recently come to your new career. Thus, this is your second childhood. Some wait for senility, but you were always an overachiever.”
Brannon shook his head slowly, a chuckle low in his throat. “Now I see why you had that boy take my sword. Don’t you have something better to do than pester me? Seeing to the Pride of Raldene, perhaps?”
“He’s in good hands. Get out of that shirt and I’ll stitch your arm.”
As if summoned by their words, the other physicians entered the room, Darnec Raldene carried on a stretcher between them. The young man was pale and sweaty, but conscious.
“He’s losing a lot of blood,” Brannon muttered as they placed Darnec on the other bed. Two of them pressed wadded bandages over the leg and shoulder wounds while a young woman with a blond ponytail peered at the abdominal slash.
Master Jordell pushed him back with surprisingly strong hands when he tried to get up to take a closer look. “He’ll be fine.” The old man picked up a pair of scissors and Brannon knew better than to resist as his shirt was cut away from his still bleeding shoulder.
“You’re sure?”
Jordell pursed his lips and reached for a wet cloth and bowl to wash the cut. Across the room the blond woman was doing the same with the abdominal wound. “Yes, Sir Brannon, I’m sure. You were very precise. Nothing vital was hit and you know it. You sterilized your sword beforehand?”
Brannon felt his face flush. “Yes.”
Jordell shrugged. “There you go then—not even much chance of infection. You did all you could for the fool. Now, for goodness’ sake, lay back and try not to be one yourself!”
Brannon did as he was told and held still as his mentor pulled needle and thread through the cut on his shoulder, tugging the flesh gently back into place. He separated himself from the pain and let the detached part of his mind simply observe. He’d experienced Jordell’s stitching many times in the war. On so light a wound, he probably wouldn’t even be left with a scar.
Unlike his opponent. The blond haired girl was about to work on the stomach cut and, at her age, it was unlikely she was as deft as the Master.
“Jordell, why don’t you stitch the Raldene boy? That girl doesn’t look too experienced.”
The old physician didn’t even look up. “Jessamine? She’s perfectly adequate to the task. Better than most at her level.” He pulled the thread tight on the last stitch and cut the thread. “Actually, she’s even been requested by of some of the nobility—your friend, Duke Roydan, for example.”
Brannon sat up and flexed his arm a little, testing the stitches. “Really? Roydan?” He looked across and watched as the girl continued to work. She looked very young. “I’m surprised she’s high enough level for that.”
Jordell shrugged. “She’s not. But she’s very talented and he’s asked for her specifically.”
“Ah.” Brannon grinned. “He always did like a pretty face. She should be careful there.”
“Well then, it’s lucky she’ll have you to guide her.” Master Jordell beamed. “She’s your new apprentice.”
Brannon’s grin vanished. “What? No! It’s still a bad idea for me to have an apprentice.”
“Second childhood!” Jordell teased. Then his voice grew serious. “It’s not optional.”
Brannon sighed, the energy that had sustained him through the fight draining away in a rush. He covered his face with his hands and rubbed at his eyes. When he pulled them away, nothing had changed. “Fine.”
Master Jordell turned and called across the room. “Jessamine, let one of the others finish up, would you? I want to introduce you to your mentor.”
“Yes, Master Jordell.” The girl waited until one of her colleagues had taken the needle, then fairly bounced across the room. Up close, she looked even younger than Brannon had thought. Blue eyes peered at him from beneath a slightly too-long fringe of blond hair that had escaped the ponytail. Her small nose was kept company by a scattering of freckles to either side. Her pale lips were parted slightly in an open smile. “Sir Brannon,” she said, bobbing into an almost curtsey. “I’m so pleased to meet you.”
Brannon stifled another sigh. She was going to be difficult to keep track of. Roydan wasn’t the only man in court to like a pretty face. “I’m pleased to meet you too, Jessamine,” he said. “I’m told you’re ready to apprentice. How old are you?”
“I’m twenty-two, sir.”
Brannon turned to Jordell, an eyebrow raised. “Really? A twenty-two-year-old? My raw recruit days are well behind me.”
“It’ll do you good,” Master Jordell said. “Anyway, the girl can’t help her age. You went to war younger than that.”
“True. I’m not sure when it started looking so young though.”
Jordell snorted. “Wait until you’re my age!”
“No thanks.” He turned back to the girl, who had watched the exchange with her head tilted to one side. “My apologies, Jessamine. I’m a little out of sorts today. Apparently you’re very skilled already, so I’m sure you’ll do fine. Even if I’m not sure what you’ll learn from me at court.”
She straightened up with a smile. “No problem, sir. I hope you don’t mind that I asked to be matched with you. When I heard the famous Bloodhawk needed a physician’s apprentice—”
Brannon held up a hand to stop her. “Do you want to be a physician or a soldier?”
“A physician, of course.”
“Then don’t talk to me about Bloodhawk. And stop calling me ‘sir.’ Brannon is fine.” He stood up and pulled what was left of his shirt around him. The top of her head barely reached his chin. “Now, tell me about your patient.”
“Well, he’ll need some time to heal and we’ll have to work his arm to get full movement back to his shoulder, but, for the losing side of a trial by combat, he’s in remarkably good shape,” Jessamine said, leading the way back to where Darnec Raldene lay, now sleeping thanks to an application of fumes. “Although he must be very skilled because he managed to cut the King’s Champion and people say that’s only happened once before.”
Brannon studied Darnec’s wounds. The thigh damage was minimal. The skewered shoulder had two physicians working on it still. The abdominal cut was stitched surprisingly well, a red belt across his middle with black notches all the way across. “Good work. Put the stitches a little closer together next time, but good.” He looked up at her and pointed to the scar on his own cheek. “And if you really believe I got through the entire war with only one scratch, you’re an idiot.”
Jessamine grinned. “No. But I have to admit, the legend of it is appealing.”
Brannon rolled his eyes. “Appealing to idiots. But there may be hope for you yet.”
She gave her little curtsey-bob again. “I hope so.”
“Sir Brannon Kesh!” A voice sounded loudly from the doorway where a messenger in full court livery waited for an answer.
“The king has sent for you. Something’s happened to his cousin.”

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