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There have been nineteen years of blood. The ruthless Grand Duke Orso is locked in a vicious struggle with the squabbling League of Eight, and between them they have bled the land white. While armies march, heads roll and cities burn, and behind the scenes bankers, priests and older, darker powers play a deadly game to choose who will be king.
War may be hell but for Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in Duke Orso’s employ, it’s a damn good way of making money too. Her victories have made her popular — a shade too popular for her employer’s taste. Betrayed, thrown down a mountain and left for dead, Murcatto’s reward is a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance. Whatever the cost, seven men must die.
Her allies include Styria’s least reliable drunkard, Styria’s most treacherous poisoner, a mass-murderer obsessed with numbers and a Northman who just wants to do the right thing. Her enemies number the better half of the nation. And that’s all before the most dangerous man in the world is dispatched to hunt her down and finish the job Duke Orso started. . .
Table of Contents
A Preview of The Heroes
A Preview of Promise of Blood
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Benna Murcatto Saves a Life
The sunrise was the colour of bad blood. It leaked out of the east and stained the dark sky red, marked the scraps of cloud with stolen gold. Underneath it the road twisted up the mountainside towards the fortress of Fontezarmo—a cluster of sharp towers, ash-black against the wounded heavens. The sunrise was red, black and gold.
The colours of their profession.
"You look especially beautiful this morning, Monza."
She sighed, as if that was an accident. As if she hadn't spent an hour preening herself before the mirror. "Facts are facts. Stating them isn't a gift. You only prove you're not blind." She yawned, stretched in her saddle, made him wait a moment longer. "But I'll hear more."
He noisily cleared his throat and held up one hand, a bad actor preparing for his grand speech. "Your hair is like to… a veil of shimmering sable!"
"You pompous cock. What was it yesterday? A curtain of midnight. I liked that better, it had some poetry to it. Bad poetry, but still."
"Shit." He squinted up at the clouds. "Your eyes, then, gleam like piercing sapphires, beyond price!"
"I've got stones in my face, now?"
"Lips like rose petals?"
She spat at him, but he was ready and dodged it, the phlegm clearing his horse and falling on the dry stones beside the track. "That's to make your roses grow, arsehole. You can do better."
"Harder every day," he muttered. "That jewel I bought looks wonderful well on you."
She held up her right hand to admire it, a ruby the size of an almond, catching the first glimmers of sunlight and glistening like an open wound. "I've had worse gifts."
"It matches your fiery temper."
She snorted. "And my bloody reputation."
"Piss on your reputation! Nothing but idiots' chatter! You're a dream. A vision. You look like…" He snapped his fingers. "The very Goddess of War!"
"Of War. You like it?"
"It'll do. If you can kiss Duke Orso's arse half so well, we might even get a bonus."
Benna puckered his lips at her. "I love nothing more of a morning than a faceful of his Excellency's rich, round buttocks. They taste like… power."
Hooves crunched on the dusty track, saddles creaked and harnesses rattled. The road turned back on itself, and again. The rest of the world dropped away below them. The eastern sky bled out from red to butchered pink. The river crept slowly into view, winding through the autumn woods in the base of the steep valley. Glittering like an army on the march, flowing swift and merciless towards the sea. Towards Talins.
"I'm waiting," he said.
"My share of the compliments, of course."
"If your head swells any further it'll fucking burst." She twitched her silken cuffs up. "And I don't want your brains on my new shirt."
"Stabbed!" Benna clutched one hand to his chest. "Right here! Is this how you repay my years of devotion, you heartless bitch?"
"How dare you presume to be devoted to me, peasant? You're like a tick devoted to a tiger!"
"Tiger? Hah! When they compare you to an animal they usually pick a snake."
"Better than a maggot."
She could hardly deny that one. Silence settled on them again. A bird trilled from a thirsty tree beside the road.
Benna's horse drew gradually up beside hers, and ever so gently he murmured, "You look especially beautiful this morning, Monza."
That brought a smile to the corner of her mouth. The corner he couldn't see. "Well. Facts are facts."
She spurred round one more steep bend, and the outermost wall of the citadel thrust up ahead of them. A narrow bridge crossed a dizzy ravine to the gatehouse, water sparkling as it fell away beneath. At the far end an archway yawned, welcoming as a grave.
"They've strengthened the walls since last year," muttered Benna. "I wouldn't fancy trying to storm the place."
"Don't pretend you'd have the guts to climb the ladder."
"I wouldn't fancy telling someone else to storm the place."
"Don't pretend you'd have the guts to give the orders."
"I wouldn't fancy watching you tell someone else to storm the place."
"No." She leaned gingerly from her saddle and frowned down at the plummeting drop on her left. Then she peered up at the sheer wall on her right, battlements a jagged black edge against the brightening sky. "It's almost as if Orso's worried someone might try to kill him."
"He's got enemies?" breathed Benna, eyes round as saucers with mock amazement.
"Only half of Styria."
"Then… we've got enemies?"
"More than half of Styria."
"But I've tried so hard to be popular…" They trotted between two dour-faced soldiers, spears and steel caps polished to a murderous glint. Hoofbeats echoed in the darkness of the long tunnel, sloping gradually upwards. "You have that look, now."
"No more fun today."
"Huh." She felt the familiar frown gripping her face. "You can afford to smile. You're the good one."
It was a different world beyond the gates, air heavy with lavender, shining green after the grey mountainside. A world of close-clipped lawns, of hedges tortured into wondrous shapes, of fountains throwing up glittering spray. Grim guardsmen, the black cross of Talins stitched into their white surcoats, spoiled the mood at every doorway.
"Let's make this the last season on campaign," Benna wheedled. "The last summer in the dust. Let's find something more comfortable to do. Now, while we're young."
"What about the Thousand Swords? Closer to ten thousand now, all looking to us for orders."
"They can look elsewhere. They joined us for plunder and we've given them plenty. They've no loyalty beyond their own profit."
She had to admit the Thousand Swords had never represented the best of mankind, or even the best of mercenaries. Most of them were a step above the criminal. Most of the rest were a step below. But that wasn't the point. "You have to stick at something in your life," she grunted.
"I don't see why."
"That's you all over. One more season and Visserine will fall, and Rogont will surrender, and the League of Eight will be just a bad memory. Orso can crown himself King of Styria, and we can melt away and be forgotten."
"We deserve to be remembered. We could have our own city. You could be the noble Duchess Monzcarro of… wherever—"
"And you the fearless Duke Benna?" She laughed at that. "You stupid arse. You can scarcely govern your own bowels without my help. War's a dark enough trade, I draw the line at politics. Orso crowned, then we retire."
Benna sighed. "I thought we were mercenaries. Cosca never stuck to an employer like this."
"I'm not Cosca. And anyway, it's not wise to say no to the Lord of Talins."
"You just love to fight."
"No. I love to win. Just one more season, then we can see the world. Visit the Old Empire. Tour the Thousand Isles. Sail to Adua and stand in the shadow of the House of the Maker. Everything we talked about." Benna pouted, just as he always did when he didn't get his way. He pouted, but he never said no. It scratched at her, sometimes, that she always had to make the choices. "Since we've clearly only got one pair of balls between us, don't you ever feel the need to borrow them yourself?"
"They look better on you. Besides, you've got all the brains. It's best they stay together."
"What do you get from the deal?"
Benna grinned at her. "The winning smile."
"Smile, then. For one more season." She swung down from her saddle, jerked her sword belt straight, tossed the reins at the groom and strode for the inner gatehouse. Benna had to hurry to catch up, getting tangled with his own sword on the way. For a man who earned his living from war, he'd always been an embarrassment where weapons were concerned.
The inner courtyard was split into wide terraces at the summit of the mountain, planted with exotic palms and even more heavily guarded than the outer. An ancient column said to come from the palace of Scarpius stood tall in the centre, casting a shimmering reflection in a round pool teeming with silvery fish. The immensity of glass, bronze and marble that was Duke Orso's palace towered around it on three sides like a monstrous cat with a mouse between its paws. Since the spring they'd built a vast new wing along the northern wall, its festoons of decorative stonework still half-shrouded in scaffolding.
"They've been building," she said.
"Of course. How could Prince Ario manage with only ten halls for his shoes?"
"A man can't be fashionable these days without at least twenty rooms of footwear."
Benna frowned down at his own gold-buckled boots. "I've no more than thirty pairs all told. I feel my shortcomings most keenly."
"As do we all," she muttered. A half-finished set of statues stood along the roofline. Duke Orso giving alms to the poor. Duke Orso gifting knowledge to the ignorant. Duke Orso shielding the weak from harm.
"I'm surprised he hasn't got one of the whole of Styria tonguing his arse," whispered Benna in her ear.
She pointed to a partly chiselled block of marble. "That's next."
Count Foscar, Orso's younger son, rushed around the pool like an eager puppy, shoes crunching on fresh-raked gravel, freckled face all lit up. He'd made an ill-advised attempt at a beard since Monza had last seen him but the sprinkling of sandy hairs only made him look more boyish. He might have inherited all the honesty in his family, but the looks had gone elsewhere. Benna grinned, threw one arm around Foscar's shoulders and ruffled his hair. An insult from anyone else, from Benna it was effortlessly charming. He had a knack of making people happy that always seemed like magic to Monza. Her talents lay in the opposite direction.
"Your father here yet?" she asked.
"Yes, and my brother too. They're with their banker."
"How's his mood?"
"Good, so far as I can tell, but you know my father. Still, he's never angry with you two, is he? You always bring good news. You bring good news today, yes?"
"Shall I tell him, Monza, or—"
"Borletta's fallen. Cantain's dead."
Foscar didn't celebrate. He hadn't his father's appetite for corpses. "Cantain was a good man."
That was a long way from the point, as far as Monza could see. "He was your father's enemy."
"A man you could respect, though. There are precious few of them left in Styria. He's really dead?"
Benna blew out his cheeks. "Well, his head's off, and spiked above the gates, so unless you know one hell of a physician…"
They passed through a high archway, the hall beyond dim and echoing as an emperor's tomb, light filtering down in dusty columns and pooling on the marble floor. Suits of old armour stood gleaming to silent attention, antique weapons clutched in steel fists. The sharp clicking of boot heels snapped from the walls as a man in a dark uniform paced towards them.
"Shit," Benna hissed in her ear. "That reptile Ganmark's here."
"Leave it be."
"There's no way that cold-blooded bastard's as good with a sword as they say—"
"If I was half a man, I'd—"
"You're not. So leave it be."
General Ganmark's face was strangely soft, his moustaches limp, his pale grey eyes always watery, lending him a look of perpetual sadness. The rumour was he'd been thrown out of the Union army for a sexual indiscretion involving another officer, and crossed the sea to find a more broad-minded master. The breadth of Duke Orso's mind was infinite where his servants were concerned, provided they were effective. She and Benna were proof enough of that.
Ganmark nodded stiffly to Monza. "General Murcatto." He nodded stiffly to Benna. "General Murcatto. Count Foscar, you are keeping to your exercises, I hope?"
"Sparring every day."
"Then we will make a swordsman of you yet."
Benna snorted. "That, or a bore."
"Either one would be something," droned Ganmark in his clipped Union accent. "A man without discipline is no better than a dog. A soldier without discipline is no better than a corpse. Worse, in fact. A corpse is no threat to his comrades."
Benna opened his mouth but Monza talked over him. He could make an arse of himself later, if he pleased. "How was your season?"
"I played my part, keeping your flanks free of Rogont and his Osprians."
"Stalling the Duke of Delay?" Benna smirked. "Quite the challenge."
"No more than a supporting role. A comic turn in a great tragedy, but one appreciated by the audience, I hope."
The echoes of their footsteps swelled as they passed through another archway and into the towering rotunda at the heart of the palace. The curving walls were vast panels of sculpture showing scenes from antiquity. Wars between demons and magi, and other such rubbish. High above, the great dome was frescoed with seven winged women against a stormy sky—armed, armoured and angry-looking. The Fates, bringing destinies to earth. Aropella's greatest work. She'd heard it had taken him eight years to finish. Monza never got over how tiny, weak, utterly insignificant this space made her feel. That was the point of it.
The four of them climbed a sweeping staircase, wide enough for twice as many to walk abreast. "And where have your comic talents taken you?" she asked Ganmark.
"Fire and murder, to the gates of Puranti and back."
Benna curled his lip. "Any actual fighting?"
"Why ever would I do that? Have you not read your Stolicus? 'An animal fights his way to victory—'"
"'A general marches there,'" Monza finished for him. "Did you raise many laughs?"
"Not for the enemy, I suppose. Precious few for anyone, but that is war."
"I find time to chuckle," threw in Benna.
"Some men laugh easily. It makes them winning dinner companions." Ganmark's soft eyes moved across to Monza's. "I note you are not smiling."
"I will. Once the League of Eight are finished and Orso is King of Styria. Then we can all hang up our swords."
"In my experience swords do not hang comfortably from hooks. They have a habit of finding their way back into one's hands."
"I daresay Orso will keep you on," said Benna. "Even if it's only to polish the tiles."
Ganmark did not give so much as a sharp breath. "Then his Excellency will have the cleanest floors in all of Styria."
A pair of high doors faced the top of the stairs, gleaming with inlaid wood, carved with lions' faces. A thick-set man paced up and down before them like a loyal old hound before his master's bedchamber. Faithful Carpi, the longest-serving captain in the Thousand Swords, the scars of a hundred engagements marked out on his broad, weathered, honest face.
"Faithful!" Benna seized the old mercenary's big slab of a hand. "Climbing a mountain, at your age? Shouldn't you be in a brothel somewhere?"
"If only." Carpi shrugged. "But his Excellency sent for me."
"And you, being an obedient sort… obeyed."
"That's why they call me Faithful."
"How did you leave things in Borletta?" asked Monza.
"Quiet. Most of the men are quartered outside the walls with Andiche and Victus. Best if they don't set fire to the place, I thought. I left some of the more reliable ones in Cantain's palace with Sesaria watching over them. Old-timers, like me, from back in Cosca's day. Seasoned men, not prone to impulsiveness."
Benna chuckled. "Slow thinkers, you mean?"
"Slow but steady. We get there in the end."
"Going in, then?" Foscar set his shoulder to one of the doors and heaved it open. Ganmark and Faithful followed. Monza paused a moment on the threshold, trying to find her hardest face. She looked up and saw Benna smiling at her. Without thinking, she found herself smiling back. She leaned and whispered in his ear.
"I love you."
"Of course you do." He stepped through the doorway, and she followed.
Duke Orso's private study was a marble hall the size of a market square. Lofty windows marched in bold procession along one side, standing open, a keen breeze washing through and making the vivid hangings twitch and rustle. Beyond them a long terrace seemed to hang in empty air, overlooking the steepest drop from the mountain's summit.
The opposite wall was covered with towering panels, painted by the foremost artists of Styria, displaying the great battles of history. The victories of Stolicus, of Harod the Great, of Farans and Verturio, all preserved in sweeping oils. The message that Orso was the latest in a line of royal winners was hard to miss, even though his great-grandfather had been a usurper, and a common criminal besides.
The largest painting of them all faced the door, ten strides high at the least. Who else but Grand Duke Orso? He was seated upon a rearing charger, his shining sword raised high, his piercing eye fixed on the far horizon, urging his men to victory at the Battle of Etrea. The painter seemed to have been unaware that Orso hadn't come within fifty miles of the fighting.
But then fine lies beat tedious truths every time, as he had often told her.
The Duke of Talins himself sat crabbed over a desk, wielding a pen rather than a sword. A tall, gaunt, hook-nosed man stood at his elbow, staring down as keenly as a vulture waiting for thirsty travellers to die. A great shape lurked near them, in the shadows against the wall. Gobba, Orso's bodyguard, fat-necked as a great hog. Prince Ario, the duke's eldest son and heir, lounged in a gilded chair nearer at hand. He had one leg crossed over the other, a wine glass dangling carelessly, a bland smile balanced on his blandly handsome face.
"I found these beggars wandering the grounds," called Foscar, "and thought I'd commend them to your charity, Father!"
"Charity?" Orso's sharp voice echoed around the cavernous room. "I am not a great admirer of the stuff. Make yourselves comfortable, my friends, I will be with you shortly."
"If it isn't the Butcher of Caprile," murmured Ario, "and her little Benna too."
"Your Highness. You look well." Monza thought he looked an indolent cock, but kept it to herself.
"You too, as ever. If all soldiers looked as you did, I might even be tempted to go on campaign myself. A new bauble?" Ario waved his own jewel-encrusted hand limply towards the ruby on Monza's finger.
"Just what was to hand when I was dressing."
"I wish I'd been there. Wine?"
"Just after dawn?"
He glanced heavy-lidded towards the windows. "Still last night as far as I'm concerned." As if staying up late was a heroic achievement.
"I will." Benna was already pouring himself a glass, never to be outdone as far as showing off went. Most likely he'd be drunk within the hour and embarrass himself, but Monza was tired of playing his mother. She strolled past the monumental fireplace held up by carven figures of Juvens and Kanedias, and towards Orso's desk.
"Sign here, and here, and here," the gaunt man was saying, one bony finger hovering over the documents.
"You know Mauthis, do you?" Orso gave a sour glance in his direction. "My leash-holder."
"Always your humble servant, your Excellency. The Banking House of Valint and Balk agrees to this further loan for the period of one year, after which they regret they must charge interest."
Orso snorted. "As the plague regrets the dead, I'll be bound." He scratched out a parting swirl on the last signature and tossed down his pen. "Everyone must kneel to someone, eh? Make sure you extend to your superiors my infinite gratitude for their indulgence."
"I shall do so." Mauthis collected up the documents. "That concludes our business, your Excellency. I must leave at once if I mean to catch the evening tide for Westport—"
"No. Stay a while longer. We have one other matter to discuss."
Mauthis' dead eyes moved towards Monza, then back to Orso. "As your Excellency desires."
The duke rose smoothly from his desk. "To happier business, then. You do bring happy news, eh, Monzcarro?"
"I do, your Excellency."
"Ah, whatever would I do without you?" There was a trace of iron grey in his black hair since she'd seen him last, perhaps some deeper lines at the corners of his eyes, but his air of complete command was impressive as ever. He leaned forwards and kissed her on both cheeks, then whispered in her ear, "Ganmark can lead soldiers well enough, but for a man who sucks cocks he hasn't the slightest sense of humour. Come, tell me of your victories in the open air." He left one arm draped around her shoulders and guided her, past the sneering Prince Ario, through the open windows onto the high terrace.
The sun was climbing now, and the bright world was full of colour. The blood had drained from the sky and left it a vivid blue, white clouds crawling high above. Below, at the very bottom of a dizzy drop, the river wound through the wooded valley, autumn leaves pale green, burned orange, faded yellow, angry red, light glinting silver on fast-flowing water. To the east, the forest crumbled away into a patchwork of fields—squares of fallow green, rich black earth, golden crop. Further still and the river met the grey sea, branching out in a wide delta choked with islands. Monza could just make out the suggestion of tiny towers there, buildings, bridges, walls. Great Talins, no bigger than her thumbnail.
She narrowed her eyes against the stiff breeze, pushed some stray hair out of her face. "I never tire of this view."
"How could you? It's why I built this damn place. Here I can keep one eye always on my subjects, as a watchful parent should upon his children. Just to make sure they don't hurt themselves while they play, you understand."
"Your people are lucky to have such a just and caring father," she lied smoothly.
"Just and caring." Orso frowned thoughtfully towards the distant sea. "Do you think that is how history will remember me?"
Monza thought it incredibly unlikely. "What did Bialoveld say? 'History is written by the victors.'"
The duke squeezed her shoulder. "All this, and well read into the bargain. Ario is ambitious enough, but he has no insight. I'd be surprised if he could read to the end of a signpost in one sitting. All he cares about is whoring. And shoes. My daughter Terez, meanwhile, weeps most bitterly because I married her to a king. I swear, if I had offered great Euz as the groom she would have whined for a husband better fitting her station." He gave a heavy sigh. "None of my children understand me. My great-grandfather was a mercenary, you know. A fact I do not like to advertise." Though he told her every other time they met. "A man who never shed a tear in his life, and wore on his feet whatever was to hand. A low-born fighting man, who seized power in Talins by the sharpness of his mind and sword together." More by blunt ruthlessness and brutality, the way Monza had heard the tale. "We are from the same stock, you and I. We have made ourselves, out of nothing."
Orso had been born to the wealthiest dukedom in Styria and never done a hard day's work in his life, but Monza bit her tongue. "You do me too much honour, your Excellency."
"Less than you deserve. Now tell me of Borletta."
"You heard about the battle on the High Bank?"
"I heard you scattered the League of Eight's army, just as you did at Sweet Pines! Ganmark says Duke Salier had three times your number."
"Numbers are a hindrance if they're lazy, ill-prepared and led by idiots. An army of farmers from Borletta, cobblers from Affoia, glass-blowers from Visserine. Amateurs. They camped by the river, thinking we were far away, scarcely posted guards. We came up through the woods at night and caught them at sunrise, not even in their armour."
"I can see Salier now, the fat pig, waddling from his bed to run!"
"Faithful led the charge. We broke them quickly, captured their supplies."
"Turned the golden cornfields crimson, I was told."
"They hardly even fought. Ten times as many drowned trying to swim the river as died fighting. More than four thousand prisoners. Some ransoms were paid, some not, some men were hanged."
"And few tears shed, eh, Monza?"
"Not by me. If they were so keen to live, they could've surrendered."
"As they did at Caprile?"
She stared straight back into Orso's black eyes. "Just as they did at Caprile."
"Borletta is besieged, then?"
The duke's face lit up like a boy's on his birthday. "Fallen? Cantain surrendered?"
"When his people heard of Salier's defeat, they lost hope."
"And people without hope are a dangerous crowd, even in a republic."
"Especially in a republic. A mob dragged Cantain from the palace, hanged him from the highest tower, opened the gates and threw themselves on the mercy of the Thousand Swords."
"Hah! Slaughtered by the very people he laboured to keep free. There's the gratitude of the common man, eh, Monza? Cantain should have taken my money when I offered. It would have been cheaper for both of us."
"The people are falling over themselves to become your subjects. I've given orders they should be spared, where possible."
"Mercy and cowardice are the same," she snapped out. "But you want their land, not their lives, no? Dead men can't obey."
Orso smiled. "Why can my sons not mark my lessons as you have? I entirely approve. Hang only the leaders. And Cantain's head above the gates. Nothing encourages obedience like a good example."
"Already rotting, with those of his sons."
"Fine work!" The Lord of Talins clapped his hands, as though he never heard such pleasing music as the news of rotting heads. "What of the takings?"
The accounts were Benna's business, and he came forwards now, sliding a folded paper from his chest pocket. "The city was scoured, your Excellency. Every building stripped, every floor dug up, every person searched. The usual rules apply, according to our terms of engagement. Quarter for the man that finds it, quarter for his captain, quarter for the generals," and he bowed low, unfolding the paper and offering it out, "and quarter for our noble employer."
"The battles are vivid and visceral, the action brutal, the pace headlong, and Abercrombie piles the betrayals, reversals, and plot twists one atop another to keep us guessing how it will all come out. This is his best book yet." --- George R.R. Martin
"Joe Abercrombie takes the grand tradition of high fantasy literature and drags it down into the gutter, in the best possible way. Monza is a beautiful mercenary who has sworn to kill the seven men who tried to kill her. No elves, no wands - just lots of down-and-dirty swordplay." --- Time
"Abercrombie is both fiendishly inventive and solidly convincing, especially when sprinkling his appallingly vivid combat scenes with humor so dark that it's almost ultraviolet." --- Publishers Weekly
- On Sale
- Jul 29, 2009
- Page Count
- 656 pages