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The Jaguar Knights
by Dave Duncan
Eos, 2004

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Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One

The master first lets slip
his best hounds

Something was up. The Royal Guard liked to think it knew all the news and heard it before anyone else did, but that day it had been shut out. The morning watch had been on duty for two hours already, but Commander Vicious had not arrived to hold the daily inspection and the graveyard shift had not yet been stood down. They were supposedly attending the King, who was meeting with senior advisors in the council chamber. Absurd! Even during the worst panics of the Thencaster Conspiracy, three years ago, Athelgar had never summoned his cabinet in the middle of the night.

Deputy Commander Lyon must have some idea what was going on, but he refused to admit it. Infuriatingly, he just sat behind his desk in the guardroom, reading a book of poetry -- Lyon not only read poetry, he wrote it too, yet he was a fine swordsman, subtle and unpredictable.The half-dozen Blades sustaining the permanent dice game under the window were doing so halfheartedly, grumbling more than gambling. Sir Wolf was polishing his boots in a corner -- Wolf never read poetry, was never invited into the games, and cared not a fig what folly the King was pursuing this time.

The park beyond the frost-spangled panes was all pen-and-ink, stark white-and-black, sun-bright snow and cadaver trees under a sky of anemic blue, for this was Secondmoon of 395, the coldest winter in memory. Nocare, with its high ceilings and huge windows, was a summer palace, impossible to heat in cold weather. The King had moved the court there on some inexplicable whim and could not return it to poky old Greymere as long as the roads were blocked by snowdrifts. Courtiers slunk around unhappily, huddled in furs and muttering under their smoky breath.

Innumerable feet shuffled past the guardroom door: gentry, heralds, pages, porters, stewards,White Sisters, Household Yeomen. No one paid any heed until a rapid tattoo of heel taps raised every head. Blades knew the sound of Guard boots, and these were in a hurry.

Wolf went on polishing his left one.

In marched Sir Damon, still wearing his sash as officer in charge of the night watch. The kibitzers by the window exchanged shocked glances.The matter was much more than routine if Sir Vicious had sent a senior Blade as messenger, instead of a junior or just a page.

Damon glanced around the room, then bent to whisper something to Lyon. Lyon turned to Wolf.

"Leader wants you."

Wolf put foot in boot and stamped. "Where?"

Damon said, "Council Chamber. He's still with the Pirate's Son."

At the dice table, eyebrows rose even higher. The Pirate's Son was King Athelgar. It was common knowledge that Vicious preferred to keep Sir Wolf out of the King's sight, so if Wolf was wanted now, it was because the King had called for him by name.

Wolf was the King's Killer.

Ignoring the rabble's surprise, Wolf strode across to the mirror and looked himself over with care. Like all Blades he was of middle height, slim and athletic, but he was invariably the best-turned-out man in the Guard -- boots and sword belt gleaming like glass, not a wrinkle in his hose nor speck of dust marring his jerkin. He adjusted the feather in his bonnet an imperceptible amount and turned away. He did not examine his face. No one looked at that horror unless they must.

Exchanging nods with a lip-chewing Lyon, he strode out into the corridor, and Damon fell into step beside him. Together they marched along marble corridors, past statuary and tapestries. Courtiers stared with interest at two senior members of the Royal Guard moving at an urgent clip. Word that the King had sent for the infamous Sir Wolf would spread like fire in dry grass.

So what was up? The last time Wolf had been summoned to the royal presence, Athelgar had named him -- over Leader's objections -- to lead the Elboro mission, which had required him to kill two brother Blades. It had not been the first such filthy job the Pirate's Son had given him, either, and Wolf 's written report afterwards had let Athelgar Radgaring know exactly what he thought of his liege lord. Moreover, since Leader had not ordered him to rewrite it, it had warned His Majesty that others shared those opinions.The Guard had been shorthanded back then, else Wolf might have been thrown in a dungeon for some of the comments in that report. In the two years since,Vicious had kept him well away from the King.

What had changed? Well, the Guard was up to strength now, so one possibility was that Athelgar was going to award him the Order of the Royal Boot. That was highly unlikely. Knowing how Wolf felt about him, Athelgar was more likely to keep the King's Killer bound to absolute loyalty forever -- safer that way.

Another possibility was that the Pirate's Son wanted someone murdered. Blades were bound by oath and conjuration to defend their ward from his enemies, not to commit crimes on royal whims, but defense could cover a multitude of nasty situations.

Wolf saw anger in Damon's tightly clenched jaw. Damon was a decent man, not one of those who carried grudges against the King's Killer.

"Any hints, brother?"

"Dunno anything. Huntley and Flint rode in about four hours ago."

"Ah! And Leader wakened the Pirate's Son?"

"They've been in council ever since. No one's allowed in or out except inquisitors. A plague of inquisitors!"

That news merely deepened the mystery. Sir Flint and Sir Huntley were typical examples of Blades who failed to find a real life after being knighted and discharged from the Guard. Both men were in their fifties, idling away years at Ironhall, instructing boys in fencing and horsemanship, yet still hankering after the sins of the city ...

Excerpted from The Jaguar Knights by Dave Duncan. Copyright © 2005 by Dave Duncan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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