Blades of Illusion, the second book in the Crown Service series is now out. You can pick it up at exclusively on Amazon.
When I started this series, I wanted to explore the largest civil war in the history of the Algardis empire. But with this second book, the backstory has become so much more complex. It’s not just about the battles and the fighting. It’s about the reason why the war began, the shadowy figures behind it’s inception, and what one lone young woman can do to change it. Here is the second novel in Sara Fairchild’s story and I hope you enjoy it as much as you did the first books!
To jog your memory, here are what some readers said about Blades Of Magic: Crown Service #1 –
I don’t really think that it is like any author, I’ve never read anything like your books! But if I had to pick one then probably Brandon Sanderson based on the similarities with unique and imaginative magic systems, and strong female characters.
Here are the first two chapters and the blurb for a brand-new series set in the Algardis Universe. Time to have a fun weekend once more getting lost in Sara Fairchild’s world!
Sara Fairchild had no idea where she was. Neither did her captain nor her fellow mercenaries. Oh, they had a general idea. A vague notion of the direction in which they needed to head to get to the battlefield. But frankly, it was a battlefield that she wasn’t sure she’d ever see. With the time passing quickly, she had lost all faith in the abilities of the commanding team to lead them to their rendezvous point. She had lost all respect for them after finding out in the worst way possible that the captain she had trusted—that they had all looked up to—had decided to take evasive actions that left the bulk of his unit stranded under a deadly hail of battlefire and poisoned arrows. Arrows that dissolved your flesh if they didn’t kill you outright from the impact. The man who was supposed to have been the leader that she could look to, but not just her; hundreds of other mercenaries had looked to him. Instead, they had died for a man who sacrificed them for the greater good. His greater good.
Captain Barthis Simon had led his elite third division away from the whole of the Corcoran mercenary marching unit in case of an attack by the Kade mages in the dead of night. The betrayal stuck in Sara’s gut like a massive knot that wouldn’t unravel. His actions went against everything she had learned. Every core value of honor and service her father had instilled in her. Simon was supposed to have been responsible for every man, woman, and child who served in all seven divisions of the Corcoran guard. From the littlest of the runners, orphans that she had mockingly taken to calling ‘Cams’, to the dozens of archers, smiths, and fighters under his charge.
With a little smile, Sara remembered the youngest of the Cams’, as in Come here ‘ams, that she had run into. He couldn’t have been more than twelve, with knobby elbows and knees and spindly black hair, the kind that a mother would set straight with a dash of water and a quick comb through until it fell flat against his skull in damp submission. That is, at least, until he managed to find a way to scruff it up again minutes later.
Sara hadn’t labelled him or any of the other younglins’ Cams’ because they shared the exact same name as any of the other orphans. No, she called him and his fellows Cams’ because all the young charges of the guild shared rhyming names like Rams and Vams courtesy of their mercenary caretaker, an archivist with a biting wit whose name she had yet to learn. Hell, she wasn’t even sure if the old caretaker was still alive. He hadn’t served in just one division, which would make the question of his death or life so much easier. He was one man who crossed all regimental and divisional boundaries as an administrator and overseer. But Sara knew he was more than some detached flunky. Instead of acting solely in the capacities of his office, she had seen him take charge of all of the orphans, include those younglings that were the least of the guild. And yet, in her heart, Sara felt the loss of the orphans more than any of the warriors slain on the battlefield. It was worse in a way she just couldn’t grasp fully but it felt like a tight vice around her heart.
She smiled grimly. It was hard to put into words, like many of things she had lately experienced. The violation of her mother’s corpse at the hands of a necromancer was a similar instance. The memory filled her with indescribable rage and unabashed sorrow.
Her lips twisted as if she had sucked on a bitter lemon. “It’s because of who they were,” she whispered to herself. “My mother was an innocent. Did no harm to anybody. The orphans were the same.”
Sara may not have been able to put her feelings into perfect words but she felt the loss in her gut like a punch to the stomach. She knew that sickening feeling was because their young lives had been snuffed out before they’d ever had a chance to truly know what it meant to be alive. She knew it wasn’t right. Everyone deserved a chance to live and experience life as it came. In a way, the adults of the guild knew what they had signed up for. For glory. And for death. They may not have expected death in such a manner. So gruesome. So painful. But they knew death was coming for them, in some manner, at some time. But what child knew that the shade of death stood on their doorstep? What child understood that each sunrise might be their last?
What child doesn’t think they’re immortal and will live forever in the rays of the sun and the light of the moon’s caress? Sara thought to herself. It was one of the rare instances where she felt reflective about the loss of life. Any life. But then again if she hadn’t been, Sara knew she’d fear she’d loss her humanity entirely.
A female mercenary hobbled past Sara. The woman didn’t say anything as she used a stick to navigate through the swamp waters surrounding her bad leg. Sara could tell at a glance that leg’s ailment was natural rather than a result of any recent attack. Finally Sara decided to stare openly at what she had found. It wasn’t the arthritic gait of the woman that had caught her eye, but the swirls and scar ridges that marked the same leg. It so happened that the woman was from a tribe of people that tattooed their heritages on their limbs and kept those limbs on display no matter what. Her tough and leathered skin was bare to the elements, and she could see twisted flesh ran up the length of her leg from foot to knee, which made Sara wonder what she was doing in the mercenary’s guild.
One person’s deformity was another person’s downfall when you stood sword-to-sword and depended on the prowess of your shield mate to guard your side.
Taking a slow breath in Sara decided to see for herself why the woman was a member of the Corcoran guard. If she couldn’t stand in a shield line, perhaps her gifts lay not in the mundane nature of physical prowess but in the might of a magic gift.
Closing her eyes and opening herself to a gift that she had firmly shut down while marching through the swamp, Sara reached down in her dormant well of power and scoop out a line of magic so thin it wasn’t enough to do much more than open her vision to the magic that inhabited the creatures, people, and nature around her.
Opening her momentarily shut eyes Sara looked forward. Expecting to be mistaken and perhaps find that the woman was a bookkeeper or a washer for the mercenaries she accompanied. But the blaze of the deformed woman’s magic made that wonder a moot point from one moment to the next. The old woman might have had a bad leg, but she was powerful. Her magic blazed like the sun as it swirled around her like a cloud of power so thick that Sara felt like she was in the present of a second sun in the mist of this gloomy swamp. If her magic had been visible to the naked eye, Sara was very sure the woman wouldn’t have been walking for very long. People would pay a lot for the influence that kind of magic could buy.
But powers and gifts are two very different things, Sara knew very well. She couldn’t guess what the woman could do yet but she was quite sure it had nothing to do with flying. No one who could sprout wings or a wind tunnel would be stuck in this miasma by their own choice for very long. Sara least of all.
Sara dropped her aura vision with a shrug. It had its uses but what it didn’t show her was what exactly the woman’s gift was. To tap into that kind of knowledge she’d need more focus and more magic than she was willing to give right now. It didn’t matter. The woman paused to look Sara in the eye with a hardened gaze of her own. Then slowly and deliberately turned to spit a vile ball of phlegm into the swamp. If the woman had spit the substance in Sara’s direction, she would have punched her first and asked questions later. There was such a thing as disrespect and such a thing as disgusting; the phlegm fell under both categories.
“Is there something you have to say?” asked Sara.
“Your thoughts are very loud child for such a silent person,” the woman responded.
Sara flinched in astonishment. Well, that was unexpected.
If there was anything she hated more than a surprise was finding out that that surprise involved a mage with mind-reading powers.
“You read my mind,” Sara said accusingly.
The woman smirked. “I read a lot of minds. It helps to keep me a step ahead of my opponents. Bad leg and all.”
“Of course,” Sara murmured. She was still discontent but there wasn’t a fat lot she could do about it.
“Not a thing,” cackled the woman.
“Do you mind?” Sara asked crossly. She preferred that someone didn’t invade her thoughts at every turn.
The woman’s face morphed back into a serious state.
“Before you spoke aloud,” the woman said in a dark tone, “you voiced a thought. I remember what you said, girl. ‘What child doesn’t think they’re immortal and will live forever in the rays of the sun and the light of the moon’s caress?'”
Sara grimaced, but nodded. “So?”
“The answer is none,” the woman said with a sad note in her voice and hobbled further onwards.
Sara raised her eyebrows. She understood now that the action the woman took had been a sign of commiseration rather than a blatant challenge. Still, it did nothing to ease the loss.
Then the woman turned back toward her with a contemplative look on her face. Sara stood and watched her bare her receding gum line with blackened teeth and take a swig of whatever was in her hip flask. The woman held it out in offering, but Sara declined. She needed her wits about her, she doubted the flask contained water. The woman was savoring the drink a bit too much for that. But Sara didn’t blame her. It was probably the last time they’d see a flask of liquor until they got to the Algardis camp. If they got to the camp.
The woman licked her lips with a satisfied grunt and said, “None of those brats knew what they signed up for. But I’d argue that none of the rest of us did either.”
The wizened mage gestured around the putrid swamp without further explanation.
Sara nodded. “It could be said none of us knew of the sordid conditions we would march under. That we didn’t know that at any moment or any day we could come across a foe we couldn’t beat. That we could die.”
The woman snorted, “Everyone knows they’re going to die. Even snot-nosed brats barely out of their mother’s swaddling.”
Sara bit her tongue, but she very much doubted an eight-year-old with a belly laugh a mile long, a Cams’ she remembered fondly, was thinking about how and when he would die, and she doubted even more that any of those lads and lassies had a mother who swaddled them in anything. It was well known that the orphans who joined the guilds didn’t come from well-off houses in search for apprenticeships. They came from the streets, from mothers who had abandoned them at birth. These women feared the stigma of giving birth to a child with no man in sight or they came from families who had fallen on hard times. Sara had learned that people were willing to do a lot worse than sell their children to the guilds for a profit. It made sense to them after all—one less mouth to feed and even a bit of coin for handing their children over.
The old and wizened mage nodded toward the front.
“Not like that one.”
“Not like what one?” Sara echoed.
“That one was no orphan,” the woman replied.
She was looking ahead and Sara could tell, just from the way her face was set, that she would say no more. If Sara were a betting woman, she would have sworn on a day’s wages that the woman’s beady eyes were fixated on the scalp of a certain red-haired gentleman. Sara had questions on her mind, but the woman hobbled forward and out of sight before the words had a chance to escape her lips. That was the last Sara saw of her as she disappeared into the crowded ranks of mercenaries further up ahead.
As Sara let out a slow breath and her eyes remained trained on the red hair that she could see thanks to her own battle mage gifts she couldn’t help but feel the fury rise once more within her. Sara didn’t have the emotional strength or the desire to stomp through a sixth of a mile of mud to race up to the front and confront the captain on a suspicion. A suspicion of ineptitude, of moral ambiguity, or of general cowardice. She couldn’t. Besides, the second suspicion wasn’t exactly a capital crime and the first and last were something she couldn’t prove. The man certainly hadn’t risen through the ranks of the cut-throat mercenary’s guild based on his good looks. For now she would wait and watch and let the pain, the anger and the fear simmer like a black cauldron over a banked fire. As long as she didn’t allow her emotions to control her actions, Sara felt that the pain they awoke kept her mind sharp, acting more as a boon than a burden. It kept her awake. It kept her alert.
Sara’s fist slowly clenched by her side as she felt the pain in her heart manifest itself into an almost physical knot that grew tighter and tighter in her stomach. Sara was no fool. The captain had abandoned the lot in favor of saving his own skin, keeping his prized division of fighters away from the fray. Above all—continuing on with his mission to deliver the captured Kade mage known as Nissa Sardonien, the revered Sun mage, to the council at the battlefield.
He’d done it for a reason. But in her opinion, his reasoning was flawed. His logic was corrupt. He was without honor.
“Can’t do anything about it now though,” she muttered softly to herself, “The only option that remained would be to bring him up on court martial charges back in Sandrin.”
As things stood that would just have to do. She didn’t have to like the conclusion. It rankled her skin like a cat that had gotten wet and was trying to rid itself of the odd sensation on its fur. Sara felt pain, anger, and a smoldering desire for retribution, retribution that would come. Her resentment wasn’t because of some all-consuming love of her fellow mercenaries. She hadn’t really liked any of her campmates. In fact, she had flat-out disliked a few. Still, she felt some responsibility to fight for the memory of her fallen comrades, just as she fought for her father’s ghost. Besides, none of them deserved to die like that. They had signed up for glory on the battlefield in the name of their empress, not to be sheep slaughtered as one captain’s diversionary tactic.
Sara spit into the swamp in the disgust while she felt her lip curl up in anger. She couldn’t help it. Disgust roiled through her from the bad taste in her mouth to the dark pit in her stomach that threatened to make her hurl. She shivered, though it had nothing to do her sweat-stained armor or the swamp water that seeped into her boots and everything to do with the man who led them. Sara would call him a coward before she called him a leader. But fortunately for him, the captain would never again have to hear her opinions of his actions. In fact, the man cared less for her opinion than he did for Ezekiel Crane’s at the moment. Except for one brief exchange, the captain had made a point of studiously avoiding her while looking important at the front of the lines. At least, Sara liked to think he was avoiding her. The fact that he might not consider her significant enough of a threat to even entertain a conversation briefly crossed her mind. Briefly.
The one time he had approached the two of them, days past, it had been to deduce Ezekiel’s opinion on their location. Sara hadn’t thought then that Ezekiel knew where they were. She had been surer by the minute however after that exchange, Sara Fairchild was sure that the captain didn’t know his ass from his hands, in addition to being a coward. Ezekiel, however, hadn’t been able to shed any light on where they had ended up. He had quietly and respectfully explained that he had not one clue where they were in the swamp nor the distance to the end. As a ‘rare items acquirer for the wealthy’, Ezekiel’s explorations had taken him to various parts of the empire, but never had he wandered into these lands.
Neither Sara nor Captain Simon had bothered asking why he’d overlooked this part of the empire. They had only to look around at the miasma of heat and wet to see why. This place was like living in someone’s armpit. In addition, Sara hadn’t seen any sign of intelligent life living in the swamp, neither human nor even kith, and the stench of the place was worse than her underclothes after a fortnight on the march. She had to wonder what in the seven hells a swamp was doing smack-dab in the middle of what was supposed to be the most bountiful farmland in the empire.
However it came to be here, Sara thought with a weary wipe of her brow, The temperatures are going to make me weep for a mug of cold water from home.
Sara remembered asking a builder about how the swamp had come to be here. He was a mercenary assigned the sole tasks of maintaining the long-abandoned war machines and the roads their mercenary core traveled on and so if anyone would have known the answer, he would have. His face had been a curtain of sweat as he quietly said, “Magic. Magic is all it is. This civil war is less than a decade old and the mages are changing the very fabric of the landscape. Mark my words, Algardis will never be the same. Never look the same after this is done.”
Sara had wondered what he had meant then. But when she had questioned further, he had just wandered off muttering about mold on the spokes of his carriage wheels and rust lining his cannon casings. Sara would be the first to admit she didn’t know much about taking care of machinery, but she knew weapons and a dank swamp didn’t belong anywhere near the empire’s most fertile fields.
“These lands are supposed to be filled with fields of golden wheat and brown barley for as far as the eye can see,” she muttered distastefully as she eyed a frog-like creature that gazed right back at her with two of its three eyes; the last one tracked on an insect she couldn’t see.
As Ezekiel had nodded in understanding and given the captain his somewhat-sincere apologies that he couldn’t help, after all, he was stuck here— too—and if the captain was lost, so were they all, he kept a tight grip on Sara’s left wrist. Because she wasn’t thinking of pleasantries or even giving the man who had brought them here a sympathetic look. No, Sara knew and Ezekiel knew, that she was very likely to bring up her clenched fist in a swift left hook, being ambidextrous had its benefits after all, and clock the captain straight into his nose. She hoped her fist broke the captain’s fine, patrician nose too. It would serve him right.
Sara couldn’t abide incompetents any more than she could evil-doers. This captain, in her mind’s eye, was a lot of one and a slight bit of the other. A person had to have a little bit of evil in them to blithely make the decision to leave his mercenaries in the path of an assault like sitting ducks while he took cover. Sara’s left wrist had ached, not from Ezekiel’s grip, but from the tremor that ran through her muscles as she fought the urge to jerk free and assault her captain. It would do them no good here. She had known that. She hadn’t liked it, but she had known.
Under the captain’s assessing gaze, she had watched as he had figured out that she would deck him if he had stayed a minute more. To his credit, Captain Barthis Simon had turned away quietly, not questioning the defiant rage in her orange eyes that undoubtedly made them glow like the coals of a banked fire. He didn’t turn away because he was afraid; he, too, was one of the fabled battle mages. He had turned away because he was smart, and Sara Fairchild was a fight he didn’t need at the moment.
As she had watched him walk away with rage and disgust in her heart, Sara remembered huffing and irritably yanking her left wrist out of Ezekiel’s bruising hold. She had stared at the retreating captain’s back and said to Ezekiel beside her, “Don’t ever get in my way again.”
“Fine, I’ll just let you hang in the gallows for assaulting an officer,” he had said dryly.
Sara had then turned to him with a solemn look on her face and a bit of the anger still in her eyes.
Ezekiel had stilled at the look. “I was only trying to help.”
“When I need your help, I’ll ask for it.”
A tic had appeared in Ezekiel’s eye. “You see, Sara, that’s something friends do.”
She folded her arms crossly as she watched him. “What?”
“They help without being asked.”
Before she could get another word in, Ezekiel Crane had proceeded to do what he did best in a huff—ignore her. He had strode forward silently. She had followed moments later, and they had been silent marchers for the better part of an hour before Ezekiel broke as he spotted a crested-something-or-other bird that he had to get Sara’s attention for.
“Look at that, Sara! That’s a black-crested Willow Pike C—,” Ezekiel had exclaimed.
Sara hadn’t paid his words the least bit of mind. But she had obediently trained her eyes on the bird Ezekiel’s trembling finger pointed at while putting a hand on his raised arm and forcing him to lower it. Caution had forced her to put a wary hand on a knife even as her eyes sought out his prey. She wouldn’t know if the bird was one of those caged balls of feathers so popular with nobles on Market Street or a terrifying, razor-beaked predator until she had set her eyes on it. Relief that it was the former and not the latter put a small half-smile on her face. You could never actually tell if whatever Ezekiel was pointing at like an attraction in the central square was dangerous or simply interesting. He seemed to find both qualities mesmerizing. Both because the bird was the former and he was talking to her again. Sara tensely wondered for a minute if she could have trusted Ezekiel to shoot it out of the sky; she hadn’t exactly had a chance to test his mettle with the old bow-and-arrow.
She had reluctantly decided to just be grateful the issue hadn’t come up.
“You’re sure it’s not a threat?” she had teased.
“Of course it’s not a threat,” had said Ezekiel, “But I don’t know what it’s doing here. They’re woodland birds, not swamp creatures.”
She had watched the black and white winged creature flit from branch-to-branch before it took flight, away from the direction they were heading. Its movement left her both with a sense of unease and cautious satisfaction. Satisfaction because she had been right. Unease because being right meant they were stuck up the creek without a paddle, so to speak. In other words, they were screwed.
“It’s going away from us,” Sara said.
“I know,” grumbled Ezekiel as he hastily put away the sketchbook he had brought out from a pocket of his non-regulation gear.
“That’s bad,” Sara said.
“I know,” Ezekiel repeated with slumped shoulders while staring ahead. Then he side-eyed Sara in surprise. “Wait. Why do you think it was bad?”
It was obvious he thought it was the end of the world because he had just missed his opportunity to illustrate the rare bird.
“Because,” Sara said as she looked forward into the endless swamp that lay before them, “You never want to go somewhere a damned bird won’t, and…“
“And?” Ezekiel prodded after she was silent for a moment.
“And,” said Sara grimly, “We’re three miles into this swamp trek, by my estimations, and we’ve yet to see anything as close to normal as that bird, rare though it is, as we walked by. That tells me two things: one, the builder was right—this swamp is mage-made.”
“And the other?” Ezekiel asked quietly.
Sara looked over at him, “That we’ve barely reached the beginning. The bird turned around because it could. It would rather turn back to fly to normal land, presumably, than go further into this swamp.”
“Oh,” said Ezekiel with a thoughtful look. “How much longer do you think the swamp lasts?”
“I don’t know,” Sara remembered answering, “And that’s what worries me.”
Ezekiel nodded to the rapidly receding form of their red-haired captain visible in the distance and said, “You’re not the only one.”