Excerpt: Play of Shadows by Sebastien de Castell

CHAPTER 1

RABBIT, RABBIT

Everyone has a talent, and these days, mine is running. So superb is my aptitude for panicked flight that it almost makes up for my less admirable traits, which include cowardice, poor fencing skills and a regrettable tendency to forget those faults while making bold threats against brutish thugs who suffer no such deficiencies of their own.

Run, Rabbit, run!’ my pursuers cheered as they chased me through bustling streets and abandoned alleyways, over one crowded canal bridge and across the next. ‘Run down your warren, run up the hill! Run from the Vixen before she makes her kill!

The Vixen. Of all the sobriquets adopted by professional duellists in the city of Jereste, surely Lady Ferica di Traizo’s was the most apt – and the most terrifying.

I dived under a fruit-seller’s stall, rolled up to my feet on the other side and kept on running. What had possessed me to go and challenge the deadliest fencer in the entire city to a duella honoria?

‘Faster, Rabbit, faster! You’re the one she’s after!’

Damn their tune for being so catchy. Merchants shuttering their shops for the night sang along. Scampering children trying to run between my legs giggled their way through their own mangled lyrics. I had to shove aside two young lovers out for a romantic stroll as they hummed the melody while gazing soulfully into each other’s eyes.

I dashed through the overcrowded square and into an equally con- gested courtyard, doing my best to avoid those among my fellow citizens who saw it as their duty to stick out a foot to trip me in anticipation of witnessing a good beating before I was dragged back to court. I’d been keeping up a goodly pace thus far, but I was tiring, and my tormentors knew it.

Hide, Rabbit, hide!’ the black-shirted bravos chanted as they closed in on me. ‘She’s searching far and wide!

When I dared glance back, I caught the flickering light of the brass street lanterns glinting off the metal orchid emblems on their collars. The Iron Orchids called themselves a citizen militia, determined to rid the city of petty criminals and other undesirables, but mostly they were street toughs who sold their services to anyone looking to settle a grudge. Alas, Jereste’s notoriously feckless constabulary did little to curb their activities.

An orchestra of swashing and clanging accompanied my pursuers as the small buckler shields slung low on their leather belts banged against the scabbarded steel hilts of their rapiers and sideswords. The thump of booted heels on the loose cobblestone streets added an ominous rhythm section.

Saint Ethalia-who-shares-all-sorrows, I swore silently, help me escape these mercenary thugs! They’re going to haul me back to court and dump me in the duelling circle so that fox-faced lunatic who calls herself the Vixen can stick her blade through my heart before mine even leaves its scabbard!

The Iron Orchids were herding me deeper and deeper into the narrow alleys of the Paupers’ Market, apparently determined to keep me from the Temple District where I might beg sanctuary. Fortunately for me, I’d no intention of sleeping in a church tonight.

Run down your hole, Rabbit, run up to the sky!

Run a little faster, or else you’ll surely die!

‘Coming through!’ I shouted to a pair of street cleaners wrestling a stinking refuse cart across the street. Grinning in reply, they pushed all the harder to cut me off. No doubt they were hoping for a reward from my pursuers; a coward fleeing a lawful duel always means plenty of coin to go around for those who help bring the fugitive to justice.

Desperation lent my legs the extra ounce of strength I needed to leap high enough for my right foot to reach the top of the wagon’s iron- banded wheel. My left found purchase on the edge of the coffin-sized refuse box – but as I jumped across, my toe caught on the opposite edge and I tumbled headlong towards the cobblestones below. Luck more than skill sent me into a somersault that saved my skull, but it came at the cost of a numb shoulder and an unsettling twinge in my ankle. I started for the nearest alley, my chest heaving now. If any Iron Orchids thought to circle round and beat me to the other side, I’d be trapped. But I had more pressing problems, as it turned out, because my next step had me hissing through my teeth and the one after that tore a howl from me. I’d sprained my ankle and my race was done.

Rest, Rabbit, rest. It’s really for the best!

There’s nowhere left to hide – besides,

It’s long past time you died!

I ignored them and their lousy rhymes as I staggered onwards, grabbing at every gate and door handle I passed in search of an escape route. Too soon, though, a dozen shadowy figures appeared at the far end of the alley. The glint of freshly sharpened blades slashed through the darkness.

So close, I thought. Three doors down the alley had been my destina- tion – and, I’d hoped, my one chance at salvation.

‘You’ve bested me, friends,’ I said jovially, as if this had all been a jest on my part, even as my gaze sought out some means of delaying the inevitable. ‘My word of honour, I’ll give you no trouble on the way back to the courthouse. No doubt her Ladyship the Vixen is most troubled by my temporary absence.’

Honour?’ the leader of the bravos asked. ‘What honour does a rabbit have? And what trouble could he possibly give a pack of hunting hounds? Fear not, though, little bunny, for we have many games yet to play before we turn you over to the Vixen.’

I stifled a shiver. On his best day, an amateur like me – whose prin- cipal sword training had been at theatre school and largely devoted to learning how not to hit an opponent – might last as long as a minute in the duelling circle against an opponent of the Vixen’s calibre. With a sprained ankle and whatever assortment of bruises my escorts intended to inflict before depositing me at her Ladyship’s feet? The only chance I’d have to score first blood would be if I drove the tip of my rapier through my own eye socket before she got to me.

My gaze went to the stage door barely nine feet away. It would surely be locked right now, which meant I needed two things: a great deal of noise, and a minor miracle.

Actually, given how terrible my plan was, I would need two miracles, and not that minor, either.

Rabbit, Rabbit,’ the bravos chanted eagerly, closing in on me from both ends of the alley. Clanging their bucklers with added gusto, the cacophony turned positively thunderous. ‘Rabbit, Rabbit!

At least the Orchids can always be counted on for something, I thought. Now I just need them to be even louder.

‘Oh, do shut up, you swollen-sacked fustilarians!’ I shouted.

‘Rabbit, Rabbit!’ they roared eagerly, suitably encouraged, and started bashing the steel bosses of their bucklers against the alley walls for added effect. The endlessly repeated chant was paralysing, as if the words were unleashing some ancient spell upon me, transforming me into a cornered hare cowering as he awaits the jaws of the hounds.

Come on, come on! I thought, watching the back of the stage door. Don’t tell me any company of actors is going to tolerate this racket outside their walls? The Orchids would be upon me any second now. I couldn’t hope to bribe them – my job as a merchants’ messenger was no path to for- tune – and nor could I roll the dice and challenge my captors to fence me one-on-one here in the alley, since I’d been forced to abandon my

rapier a mile back to keep it from slowing me down.

Also, I’m rubbish with a blade.

The squeal of a heavy door grinding angrily on its hinges surprised all of us, especially when it heralded the sweet melody of a roaring bear woken too early from its hibernation.

‘What unholy hubbub intrudes upon these hallowed halls?’ the out- raged voice demanded. ‘What halfwit interrupts the sacred work of this city’s finest actors rehearsing the most magnificent play ever conceived?’

Wild, curly red hair and a thick beard framed a face better suited to the war chief of a barbarian horde come to sack the city than an actor performing in one of its legendary theatres. The lantern-light leaking from the backstage door lent a flickering glow to a bronze plaque bolted onto the theatre’s back wall.

OPERATO

BELLEZA

PLAYERS ONLY 

I nearly wept in gratitude to the many, many saints who’d ignored my prayers over the years. What moments before had seemed a truly terrible plan had, by this tiny interruption, been redeemed into a scheme of unrivalled cunning.

‘What the Hells is this about?’ one of the Iron Orchids asked. ‘You run all this way to hide in a theatre, Rabbit?’

‘Actually . . . yes!’

Ignoring the pain in my sprained ankle, I sprinted up the three stone steps, ducked under the burly actor’s arm and shot into the dimly lit hallway.

‘Hey! What are y—?’

I limped as quickly as I could down a long corridor, the damned ankle grinding like broken glass, past closets bulging with costumes and cabinets filled with props. My shoulder hit the edge of the wall as I took a left turn, following as best I could the sounds of promisingly pompous voices. Rounding a second corner, I found myself confronted with a pair of oak doors sagging on their hinges. Heedless of what awaited me on the other side, I barrelled through and into a massive hall where more than two dozen men and women in ill-fitting costumes were milling about as sullenly as if the gods themselves were pitted against them.

Actors, I thought, jubilantly steadying myself. Now I just need my second miracle.

A broad-chested woman in a too-tight red velvet dress jabbed her thumb at me. ‘Who the Hells is this now?’ she demanded. ‘Has Shoville hired more bloody amateurs for this stupid play?’

Two things I ought to mention at this juncture: the first is that the Belleza is one of the oldest theatres in Jereste, and one of only three entitled to call itself an operato. This might sound trivial for anything other than calculating the price of a ticket, but there’s a far deeper significance to that lofty title. Historical plays staged in the city’s operatos are deemed so vital to the spiritual wellbeing of the city that its performers are granted privileges once exclusive to the legendary Bardatti actors and troubadours of old. These rights include exemption from military conscription, immunity from incarceration over unpaid debts and, according to ancient tradition, the right to demand reprieve from certain affairs of honour . . .

Oh, and the second thing? In addition to being an excellent runner, I’m also a superb liar.

I swept back the damp hair from my brow before favouring my buxom saviour with a wink and a smile. ‘I’m the new herald,’ I announced, venturing deeper into the room and glancing about for a spare costume.

That there would be a herald’s part in their play was an educated guess on my part, as most of the Grand Historias are about ancient battles and the reigns of princes and dukes, which meant they invariably needed at least one herald to proclaim their glorious victories.

A tall, skinny fellow about my age, with a hooked nose and ash-brown hair cut in the fashion of a royal page, and dressed to match in doublet and hose, stamped his foot. ‘Roz,’ he complained to the voluptuous woman in the red velvet dress, ‘I thought I was playing the herald in the final act! Has that bloody director given away another of my parts?’ ‘Oh, do give it a rest, Teo,’ she replied, tying back her brassy-blonde

tresses with a scarlet ribbon. ‘It’s only one line.’

‘Well, it was my line,’ Teo grumbled. ‘Why should this guy get—?’

My newfound rival for the most trivial of acting roles was cut off by the return of the red-bearded lummox who’d unintentionally rescued me from the Iron Orchids two minutes ago. ‘There you are,’ he said.

‘Hey, Beretto,’ Teo called out, ‘did you know Shoville gave this arse- hole my part?’

Whatever Beretto was going to say in reply was drowned out by the clanging of weapons as a dozen armed men and women crowded their way into the rehearsal hall behind him. Even though the doors were already open, one fellow kicked it anyway, shouting, ‘There’s our rabbit!’ Teo and the rest of the players, most of them costumed in fake finery or imitation armour, retreated to the shadows at the back of the hall. As a species, actors are largely immune from such ailments as courage or dignity. Only the one they’d called Beretto was standing his ground.

Without the beard, he would have looked closer to my own age of twenty-five than I’d first thought. The two of us must have looked ridiculous side by side like that: a great red bear looming over a pale, shivering hare.

Beretto folded his arms across his broad chest, observing the proceed- ings with calm curiosity. ‘Fled a duel, did you?’ he asked me.

‘I prefer to think of it as engaging with the enemy honourably but from a safe distance.’

‘How’s that working out so far?’

‘I think we’re both about to find out.’

I limped to one of the weapons racks near the wall, grabbed a long- sword and turned to brandish it at the bravos advancing on me. ‘Stay back,’ I warned them. ‘I’ll see the blood of all twelve of you consecrate the floors of this hallowed hall ere the first lays a hand on me.’

The leader chuckled when he saw the weapon I was brandishing and patted his thick leather fencing vest. ‘Which should we fear more, Rabbit? The fencing skills of a coward who runs from a lawful duel, or the wooden toy he now waves in my face?’

It was only then that I noticed the distressingly light weight of the sword – due no doubt to the fact that the blade was painted wood rather than proper steel. Usually the operatos pride themselves on having authentic weapons for their performances. Apparently business wasn’t booming at the Belleza.

I tossed the wooden prop aside and offered up my best approximation of a victorious smirk.

Well, Grandmother, Grandfather, I thought, now we’ll find out if all those acting lessons you paid for were worth the money.

I took a deep breath and declared, ‘What need would I have of a blade, you ill-bred dogs, when we all know performers in Jereste’s operatos are exempt from honour duels.’

My unexpected show of bravado was less convincing than I’d hoped. Their leader looked torn between amusement and disbelief. ‘What – you? An actor?’

Now that hurts.

It wasn’t entirely a lie. I had, in fact, attended not one but three of the city’s finest dramatic academies. That I’d been tossed out of all three of them was an entirely different matter.

‘Isn’t it obvious?’ I asked, trying unsuccessfully to make my question rhetorical. I gestured to the motley assortment of actors now discreetly huddled against the back wall of the rehearsal hall. ‘Engaged by this fabled company of players, the legendary—’

Oh Hells.

I looked over at the big, red-haired man desperately. ‘Knights of the Curtain,’ he replied with a hint of a smile.

‘The Knights of the Curtain!’ I managed to repeat without irony. ‘Among these paladins of the stage am I to perform the sacred role of the herald, as all here can attest.’ I wiggled my fingers in a dismissive wave at my pursuers. ‘So you see, I can’t possibly fight some petty honour duel when my talents are needed here.’

The leader of the Iron Orchids cast a dubious glance at the cowering company of actors. ‘And you’d all swear to this?’

If only he’d asked that question with a teensy bit more disdain in his voice! My gambit relied entirely on the well-founded hatred actors felt for the bravos of this city, who looked down on them as nothing more than pampered, overprivileged prostitutes.

His question elicited nothing but deathly silence.

More honour among thieves than actors, I thought bitterly. Although, to be fair, I suppose barging in on their rehearsal and lying about being a member of their company wasn’t the strongest foundation on which to expect instant and steadfast camaraderie.

One of the narrow doors at the far end of the rehearsal hall swung open to reveal a man of middle years with sallow skin and thinning grey hair. His pronounced pot belly was at odds with his skinny, stoop- shouldered frame. But in his eyes – ah, in his eyes – there lay a lion waiting to pounce!

Shoving his way through the milling players, he bellowed, ‘In the name of Saint Anlas-who-remembers-the-world, what is going on in my theatre? I leave you for all of ten minutes and instead of rehearsing, here I find you dawdling about with—’

He arched an eyebrow as he finally took note of the black-shirted bravos infesting his hall. Without a trace of fear, he strode up to their leader, ignoring the bared blades pointed in his direction.

‘No admission without a ticket,’ he announced, ‘and weapons must be left in the cloakroom. The show isn’t until tomorrow night, so until then, get your arses out of my theatre.’

Definitely the director, I thought.

The leader of the bravos looked oddly discomfited by the man’s officious tone. ‘We, sir, are lawfully deputised . . . um . . . deputies.’ His fingers reached up to brush the iron flower brooch pinned to the collar of his leather vest. ‘We’ve come to retrieve this fugitive from justice, Damelas Chademantaigne, who must face . . . um . . . justice in—’

The director barely spared a glance at me. ‘If what you’re so ineptly trying to convey is that you’ve brought a criminal into my theatre, then you’d best have him out of here before I bring suit against your duelling court for wasting my company’s valuable and much-needed’ – he turned to glare at his players – ‘rehearsal time.’

That’s it for me then, I thought helplessly. Just my bad luck that I’ve stumbled into the one theatre in the city where the Directore Principale bothers to show up for rehearsals.

‘Right then,’ said the leader of the Iron Orchids. He nodded to two of his henchmen, who grinned in response and, with entirely too much eagerness, advanced on me.

‘A moment.’

The voice was so soft, so unexpectedly gentle, that it took a moment for me to realise it had come from the burly red-haired man, Beretto. There was an oddly whimsical look in his eye as he stared down at me. ‘Your family name is Chademantaigne? Truly?’

‘What’s a Shad-a-man-tayn?’ asked Teo.

‘A Greatcoat,’ Beretto replied, ‘but not just any Greatcoat. Our new friend here appears to be a descendant of one of the most celebrated duelling magistrates in history!’

The leader of the bravos took another step, his three-foot-long single- edged sidesword held ready to thrust as his free hand reached for my throat.

I’m not letting them take me, I swore to myself as I prepared for the bite of that blade. If I must die, let it be in a place like this, where grand tales of courage and daring were once told, not some cold and brutal duelling court.

But then a strange kind of miracle happened. It wasn’t the kind like in heroic sagas, where a magic axe or a great flying eagle appears just when you need it, but far rarer: the actor, Beretto, a stranger with no cause to help an obvious liar who’d snuck inside his home to cheat his way out of a duel, stepped between me and the twelve mercenaries.

Despite their greater numbers, the Iron Orchids hesitated. Their leader, forced to tilt his head back to meet the big man’s gaze, warned him, ‘Best you back off, player.’

‘What in all the Hells are you doing, Beretto?’ the director asked. ‘Forgive me, Lord Director,’ he replied evenly, and his right hand

reached surreptitiously to the hilt of a short, curved and very genuine- looking blade sheathed at the back of his belt. ‘Have you forgotten you hired our new colleague . . . um . . .’

‘Damelas,’ I supplied quickly. ‘Really?’ he asked.

I nodded. My given name isn’t of any particular consequence unless you happen to know the history of the Greatcoats. Damelas Chademantaigne, my distant forebear, was reputed to have been the first of the King’s sword-fighting magistrates to take up the long leather duelling coat that became their mantle of office.

‘Right,’ Beretto went on, seamlessly, ‘as I was saying, Lord Director, you hired Damelas here for the role of the herald, remember? We can’t very well put on a historia without one – therefore, with much regret, we must invoke the operato’s prerogative to withdraw him from any legal disputes that might interfere with the show.’

The director tilted his head sideways to stare at me. ‘I recall no such thing. When did I—?’

‘Enough!’ interrupted the leader of the Iron Orchids. His underlings were glaring at him dubiously, their expressions suggesting they might be reconsidering his qualifications to boss them about. ‘No one gives a fuck about some obscure theatrical entitlement, and no one’s going to stand in the way of us retrieving our fugitive. This one’s bound for the Vixen’s den tonight!’

Beretto stepped aside, and I assumed he’d gone as far as he could on my behalf and now I was properly screwed. I panicked, tried to take my first step on what would undoubtedly be a shorter run than the last, only to collapse while choking back a scream of agony courtesy of my now visibly swollen ankle. I was saved a swift and unpleasant face-first encounter with the oak floorboards when Beretto grabbed the back of my shirt and pulled me upright.

‘Well,’ he went on as if nothing had happened, ‘I suppose if our esteemed Directore Principale has decided that the ancient privileges of the theatre no longer hold sway in the sacred city of Jereste . . .’

The leader of the bravos gestured for him to move aside, then signalled for two of his fellows to take me away – but Beretto’s words must have contained some ancient magic incantation, and one even more potent than the sort that turns perfectly courageous fugitives into cowering rabbits, for they transformed the unprepossessing director into a raging dragon.

I half expected him to start spitting fire as he commanded the bravos, ‘Step. Back. NOW!’

The trio of Orchids halted their advance, which was apparently not sufficient for the director.

‘Anyone who isn’t an actor in the Company of the Knights of the Curtain,’ he began, every consonant cutting like a sword’s blade, ‘will answer to me, Hujo Shoville, Directore Principale of the Operato Belleza, the greatest theatre in the greatest city in the world. Make no mistake: before the night is out, I will personally see to it that any such knaves will find themselves on their knees in front of the Duke of Pertine himself. By morning, those who dared test my will shall find themselves exiled for ever to that filthy, barbaric wilderness that is the world outside Jereste’s fair walls – but not before they have been dragged, bound, gagged and tarred through the streets, so that their fellow unwashed denizens may hur . . . l upon them such refuse as shall clothe them on their final journey into the void!’

You had to admire the unwavering determination the leader of the bravos displayed in his zeal to drag me back to the courthouse: even in the face of the little director’s flurry of verbal thrusts, he attempted one last parry. Holding up the metal brooch on his collar, he declared, ‘You can’t threaten us! We’re the Iron Orchids!’

Shoville, who had clearly been a passionate if perhaps melodramatic actor in his own day, grabbed the end of the nearest bravo’s blade and pulled it to his chest. ‘Then strike, you blackguards – put steel to your words and let’s you and I meet the good God Death together!’

Still clutching his iron orchid, their leader stammered, ‘But . . . but . . . you said it yourself: this man isn’t even one of your actors—’

‘I said no such thing!’ Shoville roared imperiously. He let go of the bravo’s sword and clapped a hand on my shoulder. ‘Look closely, you near-sighted nincompoops, for before you stands my latest discovery: a veritable star in the making. My newest protégé, Dam . . . Damo . . .’

‘Damelas Chademantaigne,’ Beretto offered.

‘Shut up,’ the director muttered. ‘I’ll deal with you later.’ He advanced on the bravos, forcing them to yield the field or murder him in cold blood, and as the last of them backed out of the rehearsal hall, he declared, with furious conviction and improbable certitude, ‘Mark this day, you ignorant poltroons, for I’ll lay odds against every pauper’s penny in your purses that by this time next year, Damelas Chademantaigne will be the most famous actor in the entire duchy!’

Regrettably, that turned out to be true.

***

Sebastien De Castell

My first published novel was Traitor’s Blade in 2014. Since then I finished the Greatcoats Quartet and the Spellslinger YA fantasy six-book series. As of 2019 I’ve had ten books published and am under contract for six more. Next up is a massive top-secret fantasy series titled . .

PLAY OF SHADOWS, the new swashbuckling fantasy from bestselling author Sebastien de Castell. Out on 28th March, it is set in the world of Sebastien’s hugely successful series The Greatcoats but can absolutely be read without knowledge of that series. Full of sword-play, intrigue and friendships stronger than iron, it’s perfect for fans of The Three Musketeers, Joe Abercrombie and Scott Lynch.

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