Features | Written by Matthew Ward 12/08/2021

Exclusive Extract: Legacy of Light by Matthew Ward

Legacy of Light is the keenly anticpated third book in Matthew Ward's  Legacy Trilogy. Starburst has gotten it's hands on an excerpt of Chapter One to wet your appetite until the book arrives on shelves the 19th of August.  If that's not enough, they are details of the books 'blog tour' at the bottom of the page. Enjoy!

 

Soot spiralled through heavy snows, soaring over twisting alleyways and broad, cobbled streets, the rich wood-smoke from hearths mingling with sour blackstone from factory and forge. Priests proclaimed that blackstone tainted the air as surely as it did the soul. Altiris – who’d spent most of his twenty summers clinging to life in a slave’s shack on Selann for his family’s supposed transgressions – loved priests even less than the chill that had never quite left his bones, and rejoiced that the bitter scent banished both.

Tressia had lost much in the recent years, but to Altiris’ mind it seemed never to lack for priests.

At his side, Viara rubbed gloved hands together and stared gloomily along the nearly-empty street. “I didn’t realise we’d be walking halfway across the city.”

“Exercise does you good.” Altiris lengthened his stride, boots crunching on the thickening snows. A broad-brimmed rover’s hat, wool-cloak and thick gambeson beneath phoenix tabard kept gooseflesh and shuddering joints at bay. “Gets the blood moving.”

The cold had summoned a fair portion of Viara’s blood to nose and cheeks, all of which conspired to shine brighter and ruddier in the lantern-light than the scarlet ribbons woven through blonde plaits. For all that she was Altiris’ elder by three years she looked younger – a soft-skinned highblood for whom service in the Stonecrest hearthguard was the first physical work she’d known.

She cast a longing look at the Brass Key’s swinging sign; at shadows moving against windows hung with bright-painted wooden pendants with the silhouette of trees and angelic serathi. The tokens of the season. Muffled notes of ribald carols shuddered onto the street. “We’ve passed dozens of taverns already.”

Altiris nodded at a pair of constables heading in the opposite direction. “Squalid dives, hardly fit for Stonecrest Phoenixes … much less for the Lady Soronav.”

Lady Viara Soronav stifled a scowl at the reminder of the times to which her family had fallen. All the more reason to use it. Life as an indentured slave was no more easily forgotten than the livid rose brand on Altiris’ wrist. The Soronav family had prospered from the oppression of the south. Even if Viara herself was too young to carry the blame, the sins of her kith hung close. There was joy to twisting the knife.

Especially as she so wanted to be liked.

“Yes, lieutenant.”

“‘Altiris’ is fine.”

For all that Viara nodded, the correction fell flat. It was supposed to be largesse. A gesture of equality. Lord Trelan pulled it off all the time. Altiris never quite managed the right tone.

He longed for Lord Trelan’s easy authority. The ability to make suggestions that were taken as orders. And if Josiri Trelan – separatist, outcast and apostate – could cheat monolithic tradition and become a hero of the people, then surely fate could be persuaded to allow the same for others.

To be acclaimed a hero in his own right. To have his opinion feted and his name celebrated. A decade ago, it would have been impossible, but with the decimation of ancient families by war and misfortune, the old conventions were coming apart.

Maybe there was opportunity, even for a low-blood southwealder. And wouldn’t that be something? But for all that, Altiris was only a young man with a sword and something to prove, and there were plenty of those to go around. Other talents outshone the mundane.

He nodded to where the timeworn timbers and leaded window of the Ragged Wayfarer clung to the crossroad’s eastern corner.

“Here we are.”

“Thank Lumestra,” Viara muttered. “My fingers are about to fall off.”

They skirted the derelict townhouse on the crossroad’s southern corner – its collection of huddled souls gathered around a guttering fire – and crossed the dunged roadway. As the last sparks of the year died, the lucky ones might find shelter in church or alms-house, some wealthy patron easing conscience by letting the downtrodden pass Midwintertide in fleeting comfort. But not tonight.

The city wall loomed, tarpaulins and scaffolds dark shapes against the billowing snow. One of a dozen new fortresses to bolster the city’s defences. All of it behind a stout fence, and the silent, towering silhouette of a kraikon. Sunlight crackled softly across the giant construct’s bronze skin and steel plate, the magic that powered its metal frame still vibrant, even in the snows. There’d be simarka too, somewhere close by. Kraikons were all very well for throwing a scare into trespassers, but the bronze lions were faster, and far more suited to running those self-same intruders down.

After the quiet chill of the streets, the warmth of the Wayfarer’s hearth stole away Altiris’ breath. The buzz of conversation and mournful refrain of an unseen piano were loud beyond words. Beneath the low, bare-joisted ceiling, the scent of woodsmoke and ale hung heavy with promise. Drifting eyes made incurious inquiry, then returned to the serious business of staring moodily into glass or tankard.

Not so the matronly woman behind the bar. “Lieutenant Czaron! Here to settle your tab?”

He met the glare with practiced nonchalance. “Next week, Adela. On my word as a Phoenix.”

“You said that last week.”

“Did I?” The smile was for onlookers, not Adela, who was immune to such things. “If it helps, my companion’s paying.”

Adela snorted and turned her attention to another patron.

“Oh I am, am I?” murmured Viara.

“You wanted to talk. It’s only fair. A lieutenant’s wage doesn’t go far.”

She regarded him stonily. “I’m starting to believe what the others say about you.”

“And what do they say about me?”

“That you’re a rake who spends entirely too much time carousing with the likes of Konor Zarn, and not enough at minding your place.”

“Folk invite me to parties. It’d be rude to say no.”

“And miss the chance for a little social climbing? Absolutely.”

“I’ll take wine. There should be a little of the Valerun Red left.”

Taking expression’s descent from ‘stony’ to ‘scowl’ as his cue to depart, Altiris threaded his way through the crowd to an empty table beneath the window. Like so many of its era, the leaded upper frame trammelled a small, stained glass sun, though accretion of smoke had long obscured its radiance.

He peered at the crossroads, the fire in the derelict house just visible through the snow. Where he’d be, but for Lumestra’s grace. Setting aside hat and gloves, he smoothed unkempt red hair to something resembling respectability and made silent note to spare a few coins on the return journey.

Viara slid a bottle and two glasses onto the table and sat on the bench opposite. “Adela says that if you don’t clear your tab by the end of the month, she’ll send her son to settle the debt.”

“You’re misreading the situation. She likes her little amusements.”

She eyed the Wayfarer’s clientele warily. “Yes, lieutenant.”

Altiris frowned. “What’s wrong?”

“People keep staring.”

“You’re a Phoenix.” He filled both glasses with a flourish and set the bottle aside. “You’ll get used to it.”

Phoenixes transcended myth. The firebirds of legend who carried Lumestra’s tidings through the stifling Dark that devoured all things. The hope that never died. Then again, it didn’t hurt that even swaddled in a hearthguard’s unflattering uniform, Viara was easily the most stareable thing in the Wayfarer. Enough to set hopeful hearts aflutter. All the more ironic – and not a little depressing – that he felt no such stirring himself.

“If this isn’t a squalid dive, I’m glad we passed up the others.” Viara raised her glass, dark eyes on his for the first time. “Or is it that your debts are slighter here?”

Altiris took a sip of wine and made note not to underestimate her. “What was it you wanted to talk about, anyway?”

“It’s complicated.”

“I’m discrete.”

Again that appraising, careful stare. “That I doubt.” A sip of wine, and she sat back, lip twisted in irritation. “My father has … expectations.”

“I see.”

“He suggested working for Lord Trelan might restore lost opportunities.”

Opportunities. A seat on the Grand Council that granted a generous stipend without asking much in return. ‘Oversight’ of an office of state while others scurried around doing the actual work. Once a highblood’s birthright, now callously ripped away by Lord Droshna’s decree. No Grand Council. No Privy Council. And no station to which Viara and her peers could aspire.

Time was, she’d never have lowered herself to join a hearthguard – even one so storied as the Phoenixes. Nobles went into the chapterhouses to earn a knight’s plume. But with most of the chapterhouses gone or faded, and conscription making no exception for a family’s wealth? Well, better to stand service in a noble’s guard than trudge beneath a regimental banner or crawl around alleyways in a constable’s tabard.

It explained her disgust that Altiris was welcome in what wealthy circles remained, even though she apparently was not. Or had too much pride to enquire. It remained a sour note with Altiris that his invitations from Konor Zarn in particular sprang not from personal regard, but because a Phoenix tabard at Woldensend Manor’s lavish balls implied rather more influence with Lord Trelan than facts supported. But it was better than nothing.

Motion beyond the window caught Altiris’ eye. An officer in a Drazina’s midnight black and silver swan drew into sight at the crossroads, his horse champing restlessly.

“And these opportunities haven’t arrived?” he asked, eyes still on the street. “What do you expect? You’ve been at Stonecrest for what, a few weeks?”

“Two months. Lord Trelan hasn’t even acknowledged my existence.”

Beyond the window, the officer headed deeper into the city. A pair of cloaked Drazina knights followed in his wake. A low dray cart in theirs, its rider swathed against the cold. Four others brought up the rear. A heavy guard for something so unassuming.

“I’m surprised you didn’t try for the Drazina,” said Altiris. “Lord Droshna’s ear is worth more.”

“They wouldn’t take me.” She offered a self-deprecating smile tinged with bitterness. “I’m too short.”

“Ah. I don’t know what to say.”

“Tell me how I can get Lord Trelan’s attention. Lumestra, but I wasn’t brought into the world to guard the someone else’s silverware!”

There it was. The entitlement. The sense that the world existed only in service to one’s desires. It was disappointing, somehow, for a woman of Viara’s obvious intelligence to be so blinded by her upbringing. But wasn’t everyone?

“What makes you think I can help?” asked Altiris, his attention now on the inside of the Wayfarer more than on her. Something wasn’t quite right, but the more he tried to determine what, the further he strayed.

“Can’t you?” said Viara. “You live in the house, not the barracks. You dine with the family, and as for how you carry on with Lady Reveque–”

“That’ll do.” The last thing he wanted was to talk about Sidara.

Viara regarded him with a poisonous mix of uncertainty and embarrassment, afraid she’d overstepped. It’d be so easy to knock her back a peg or two. One more small act of recompense for old harms. But no. Childishness was all very well, until it crossed the line into malice.

Besides, Viara wasn’t the only one who wanted to be liked.

Altiris took a deep breath. “Lord Trelan prefers deeds over words… and bloodline. He’s a man of action. Why else do you suppose he runs the constabulary?”

“Father maintains that action is vulgar.”

“I’m sure he does. But it doesn’t change the fact that if you want to…”

That was it. The tavern was quieter, a small but significant number of faces having departed into the cold. Unheard of in the Wayfarer this side of midnight. And across the road. The fire blazed in the derelict, but its supplicants were gone.

Snatching hat and gloves from the table, Altiris started to his feet. “Come on.”

Viara blinked. “What? I don’t–”

“Do you want to catch Lord Trelan’s eye, or don’t you?”

The challenge did its wicked work. She emptied her glass and, with a last despairing glance at a bottle still half-full, followed into a snow-swathed world. One Altiris swore was colder than before.

“What’s going on, lieutenant?” she asked through chattering teeth.

Colder or no, the snow had definitely thickened, tracks and boot prints softened beneath soot-spattered white. Enough to follow, but not to show how many others had passed that way.

Altiris set off in brisk pursuit, exhilaration counteracting the chill. “A cart came through not long ago. Guarded by a half-dozen Drazina, no less. And just by chance, folk lose their taste for drink, and our friends by the fire forget the cold?”

“It’s an ambush?”

“Half of one. The rest’ll be up ahead somewhere. Probably before the Three Pillars checkpoint.”

He quickened his pace. Viara’s cry called him up short.

“Wait! If it is what you say, shouldn’t we… you know?” She jerked her head towards the incomplete fortress, where the kraikon’s magic sparked and crackled through the snow.

They should. They really should, but then there’d be no chance of taking credit for stopping whatever was going on. “We’ll leave her out of this one.” Seeing Viara wasn’t convinced, he struck a winning smile. “But if you’d rather sit this one out, I’ll understand.”

Ambition won out, as he’d suspected it would, and she stalked on past. “Three Pillars isn’t far.”

They hurried on, following tracks that threatened to vanish at any moment. Bravado flickered as shuttered windows passed away overhead. For all that the city was home to thousands upon thousands, it was possible to be alone very quickly if you strayed down the wrong street. And in the frigid anonymity of the snows, every street could quickly become the wrong street. Especially in Wallmarch, where construction work had displaced so many and made potential lairs of most buildings.

A half-demolished warehouse passed away to Altiris’ right, a church’s lychfield to his left. The snows parted, strobing merrily in the light of a damaged lantern, half-hanging from its post.

The dray cart sat slewed across the road, crates jettisoned in its wake, horse staling into the snow as if nothing were amiss. Falling snow dusted motionless bodies, blood seeping scarlet through white.

“We’re too late,” murmured Viara.

Altiris crouched beside the nearest Drazina. The blood that had so alarmed ebbed from a bruise on the back of his head – his helmet lay a short distance away. “He’s alive.”

“This one too,” Viara replied from nearer the warehouse. “But she won’t stay that way without help.”

Leaving the unconscious Drazina behind, Altiris clambered up onto the dray. The attack had been too precise, too efficient, to have been without deliberate goal. The kind of robbery the vanished Crowmarket had once conspired to so well.

“All right. We head back to the Wayfarer and raise the alarm.”

Quicker to get the kraikon’s attention than to reach the Three Pillars checkpoint. Besides, Drazina were more interested in inspecting identification papers than helping those in need – even their own.

The cart itself looked almost untouched, its crates and strongboxes still wedged in place. A sword, half-unwrapped from a bolt of velvet cloth, lay atop a burlap sack of the sort used to transport mail. A highblood’s possession, if ever there was one, with golden wings as its hilt, and a large, many-faceted sapphire set in its pommel. Dulled through lack of care – the tang of the blade pitted with rust – but still, too fine a prize to leave behind.

Unless the robbers weren’t yet done.

“Lieutenant? I think there are too many bodies.”

They rose out of the snow as Altiris spun around, four dark-clad figures armed with knives and cudgels. Two, he recognised from the Wayfarer. The others were strangers. Unremarkable men and women you could cross paths with anywhere. A cudgel crashed down. Viara dropped without a sound.

“No!” Altiris drew his sword.

He went utterly still as a sheen of steel slipped beneath his chin.

“Put it down.” The lilting voice was warm against his ear.

Gut seething sour, Altiris obeyed. The simplest of snares, and he’d rushed straight into it.

“That’s better.” The voice, maddeningly familiar, adopted a mocking tone. “I thought we were followed, but to find it was you? Been a long time, my bonny.”

Stray memory flared. “Hawkin?”

“The very same. Haven’t you grown into a fine young man?”

Hawkin Darrow. A southwealder like himself. Once trusted steward to the Reveque family, but in reality a vranakin of the Crowmarket. “I thought you were dead,” spat Altiris.

“Thought, or hoped?”

“Longed for.”

Bracing against the dray’s floor, he slammed back into Hawkin. She yelped, and then they were falling over the cart’s runners and into the snow. Altiris landed hard, his grab at her knife-wrist a hair too slow. But the wing-hilted sword, dragged from the cart during the fall, landed beside him.

He snatched it up. Hawkin shuddered to a halt, chestnut curls dancing and the tip of the pitted blade beneath her chin. Her eyes filled with poison, then bled into approval. “I always thought you showed promise.”

She’d worn the intervening years well. Thinner, perhaps, the vivaciousness of youth – of the mask she’d worn while spying on her those who’d thought her friend – eroded until only whip-thin essence remained.

So easy to ram the sword home and avenge old betrayals. But movement in Altiris’ peripheral vision reminded him that Hawkin was not alone. Even if he fought his way clear after, her death would be Viara’s too.

“Enough. Let her go.” The speaker stood by the roadside, one elbow braced against the church’s lychgate. A sharp-accented voice, a shock of ash-blonde hair and a black silk dress that was in no way practical for the weather. She drew closer, skirts dragging at the snows, and halted level with the motionless Hawkin. “No one has died. No one need die. Not for the Lord Protector’s trinkets.”

A rolling whisper billowed beneath her words, a breathy not-quite song that itched at the edge of hearing. One that flirted with melody but never fully embracing it, like waves rushing across an unseen shore. What showed of her skin above frilled black lace was pale in the manner of highblood fashion, but to a degree well beyond the limits of cosmetic powders and lacking their fashionable sheen. Her face was younger than Altiris’ own. Ageless, blue-green eyes belied those slender years.

Altiris stuttered a laugh to hide his discomfort. “These belong to Lord Droshna?”

“They used to.”

“Then you’re a bigger fool than Hawkin.”

“One of us surely is. Put down the sword.”

The song’s intensity swelled, its whispers no longer the burble of the shoreline, but the roar of a storm-wracked ocean. Altiris drowned beneath their rushing waves. He fell to his knees, heart hammering, lungs heaving for breath, his sword hand spasming and empty.

“No!” snapped the pale woman.

Altiris forced leaden eyelids open. The pale woman stood above him, sword point-down in her right hand. Her left gripped Hawkin’s shoulder. The cart bucked and heaved as their companions completed the interrupted robbery.

Hawkin’s knife glinted in the lantern-light. “He knows I’m alive. He’ll tell others.”

The pale woman held her back without obvious effort. “And whose fault is that? You know the Merrow’s rules.”

Hawkin snarled and followed the strongbox-laden robbers into the darkened lychfields. The pale woman squatted beside Altiris, the sword at her shoulder and the ghostly whispers on the edge of hearing once again.

“I could have let her kill you,” she breathed, her lips inches from his ear. “Think on that. Are you certain you’re on the right side?”

Her lips brushed his cheek. Then she was gone, rusted sword and all, lost in the snow, whispers fading behind her.

“Viara?”

Clinging to the side of the ransacked cart, Altiris made it to his feet on the third attempt. Viara lay where she’d fallen, face down in the snow. Alive, as the pale woman had promised.

But the rest? Hawkin Darrow back in Tressia? The Lord Protector’s possessions stolen? The Crowmarket resurgent? What more could the night throw at him?

A repeated, scraping thud sounded through the swirling snow. Metal feet falling on stone. Altiris’ heart, already at a low ebb, sank further.

One last humiliation.

A gleam of golden eyes presaged the simarka’s arrival. By the time the cast-bronze lion sat on its haunches before him and cocked its head in sardonic inquiry, Altiris had almost reconciled himself to what was to come.

“I need your help.”