Greetings, Loyal Reader!
I realize it has been a long wait for Royal Crush. Even I am impatient! I thought you might like to see a sneak preview of Chapter 1. (Disclaimer: still a draft and you may find a few typos because I haven’t done my proofreading yet…feel free to report any errors and feel smug about it.)
For those who read my 1990 book Royal Chaos, you’ll immediately see a few differences, reflecting the events of Noble Cause. And if you haven’t read Royal Chaos…at this point I recommend you keep it that way. It’s one big spoiler for Royal Crush.
Excerpt begins after the break…
Jason Cosmo: Royal Crush
It was a perfect day for a wedding. The golden disk of the sun shone against the summer sky like a medallion pinned to an azure mantle. A gentle breeze snapped and fluttered the jeweled banners lining the streets of Rae City. Joyous crowds cheered, chanted, and sang while they awaited the ceremony that would unite Queen Raella with her beloved, the Carathan wizard Mercury Boltblaster.
Guests from across the Eleven Kingdoms were in Raelna’s throne city to witness the marriage. King Stron of Orphalia was here. The venerable Mage Timeon and the High Council of the League of Benevolent Magic were on hand, grave and dignified in their formal wizard robes. Rounding out the guest list were scores of Raelnan nobles, ambassadors of foreign courts, and private persons lacking rank or title who had earned their seats among the great by deed and talent.
I was to serve a dual role this day. First, it was my honor to stand as my friend Mercury’s supporter for the ceremony. Yet as the heroic Champion of Rae I had also the privilege of escorting the bride to the altar. For a Darnkish woodcutter attending my first royal wedding, this was heady stuff indeed. I prayed I would not mar the ceremony by forgetting some crucial bit of protocol.
Raelnans perform their sacred rites beneath the open sky, weather permitting. This gives Bright Rae an unobstructed view of the proceedings. The ancient Temple of the Sun was a ring of great megaliths so arranged that their shadows mark the progression of the hours, days, and seasons. Glyphs and guides inscribed upon flat stones set into the ground comprised a perpetual calendar. The stones confirmed this to be High Summer Day, the day most holy to Rae and the most propitious time for Raelna’s queen to wed.
All but a few guests had found their places on the cushioned benches arranged in the temple garden, a grassy sward encircling the ring of stones. Clusters of sunflowers dotted the green. Two billowing canopies of red and gold silk shaded the back rows of for the benefit of non-Raelnans who might wilt under the sun’s glare during the lengthy ceremony.
I stood at the Sunfire Gate piercing the high goldenberry hedge that enclosed the temple grounds. Raella’s jubilant subjects lined the Avenue of Morning outside the Sun Temple. Many more waved pennants from the balconies of Rae City’s terraced towers. Mere months ago I saw Rae City invaded and almost destroyed by a horde of flying demons. Many reminders of that awful hour remained: ruined towers and mounds of rubble yet to be cleared. Yet it was joy ruled this day, not fear.
“They’re running late,” I remarked for the fifth time.
“Weddings ever do, dear Jason,” said Sapphrina. My companion was a gorgeous young woman with honey-blond hair, glittering blue eyes, a perfect figure, and a golden tan.
“It’s expected,” added her sister Rubis, also a gorgeous young woman with honey-blond hair, glittering blue eyes, a perfect figure, and a golden tan. No casual observer could tell the twins apart were they not color-coded. Sapphrina wore an azure gown and Rubis one of the same cut in fiery scarlet. Their dresses were as low-cut as decorum permitted and frosted with hundreds of tiny diamonds. Each wore a gold ring set with a sparking, thimble-sized gem, sapphire and ruby respectively.
“The wait is a chance to mingle,” added Sapphrina.
“I tried. The Duchess of Claxony fainted when I said my name.”
“That must have upset the duke,” said Rubis.
“He fainted too,” said Sapphrina.
Through no fault of my own, I was the most feared man in the Eleven Kingdoms. Some called me Arden’s Archvillain, which was most unkind. For this, I blamed the Dark Magic Society. To further a diabolical plot of theirs, that cabal of evil wizards had spread rumors and lies that Jason Cosmo was a monster who ate babies for breakfast and drank blood for wine. My bad reputation was a serious burden in polite company.
“What is this?” asked Rubis.
She pointed at a lone coach drawn by six black horses. It hurtled down the avenue with unceremonial haste. As the coach came closer, a small child chased an errant ball into its path. Heedless of the crowd’s shouts, the driver did not slow his reckless pace. He would have overrun the little boy but for an alert soldier who snatched the tiny tyke to safety. The people booed and jeered as the coach passed. It halted before the Sunfire Gate.
“The Dark Duke,” I said. The black mace emblazoned on the coach door confirmed my guess.
Thule Nethershawn, Duke of Umbra, emerged from the coach and stalked into the temple garden without greeting anyone. He was a tall, grim man with short-cropped silver hair and a graveyard face. Nethershawn led a faction of reactionary nobles who opposed Queen Raella’s efforts to create a kinder, gentler realm by outlawing slavery, banning torture, and other reforms. Having been rebuffed years ago in his bid to make a match between Raella and his son Vril, Nethershawn regarded her union with Mercury as a further affront and obstacle to his plans.
“He was invited as a formality,” I said. “No one expected him to show.”
Before the twins could comment, a thunderous shout shook the air, followed by a majestic trumpet fanfare. The wedding procession came into view, making its way slowly from the Sun Palace at the other end of the Avenue of Morning.
Vixen Hotfur, Marshal of the Realm and Captain General of the Army of Raelna, led the way astride a great roan charger. Hotfur was lean and hard-muscled from a life spent in army camps and battlefields. Her fox-red hair was wound in tight braids for the occasion. Her sly amber eyes missed nothing. Every soldier stood straighter as she passed. The She-Fox, as Hotfur was known, preferred a cavalry charge over a parade any day. But by Raelnan law and custom the marshal must ride at the head of all royal processions. This had been the rule since 534 A.H., when rebellious nobles murdered King Raeford the Moose during the Partially Hydrogenated Sunflower Oil Festival.
The 86th Ceremonial Showcase Regiment of Royal Lancers followed Hotfur. The Showcasers had not seen battle in half a century, but in processions they were unsurpassed. The lancers kept perfect formation and deadpan faces. They sported bright red pennons on their lances and bobbing scarlet crests upon their shining silver helmets. With flawless precision, the troopers peeled into two columns, lining the last hundred yards of the avenue. Hotfur and a trooper bearing the state banner of Raelna, a smiling golden sunburst upon a scarlet field, rode to the Sunfire Gate and dismounted. The trooper planted the flag to the right of the gateway.
I greeted Hotfur, shouting to be heard over the crowd’s ceaseless cheers. “You look sharp today, General!”
“I fluffing well should, decked in all this frippery!” Hotfur slapped disgustedly at her scarlet dress uniform. She preferred well-worn buckskins. “Pomp and ceremony is all well, but this! My boys can scarce keep the crowds out of the street. And the din, man! I’ve fought in battles less noisy!”
“The people love their queen.”
Hotfur nodded. “That they do, lad, and The Gods save her! Yet I’ll be glad when this is over. The city defenses are far from restored. Those gutter-sucking demons raised merry hell here last spring!”
“I recall it well.”
Hotfur laughed. “Aye, you would! And the campaigning season is far from over,” she continued. “We’ve had skirmishing all along the Brythalian frontier since we blunted their spring invasion. Orphalia is on eggshells. And Ganth makes noises I mislike. This army needs a good shakedown, and by death and spittle, we’ll have it once the fun and games are over!”
“You’ve a one track mind for war, general.”
Hotfur winked. “That’s my job, lad.”
Behind the showy lancers came the 67th Processional Pike Regiment–the Festive Pikes. After were the Royal Pipes and Drums, the Marching Trumpets, and the Queen’s Own Strolling Harps.
Next came the bridegroom’s open coach.
“He wears a sour face for a man set to wed a queen,” said Hotfur.
“That’s his happy face,” I said.
The coach halted and Mercury alighted. The soon-to-be Prince Consort of Raelna was a small-framed man with olive skin and dark green eyes. His bushy eyebrows, long hair, and neatly trimmed beard were black as coal. He wore a scarlet cape over a cloth-of-gold tunic trimmed with ermine and velvet and sewn with bright emeralds.
I owed Mercury my life a dozen times over. Together we had faced the full dread might of the Dark Magic Society, stared down Demon Lords, dared the dire depths of the Incredibly Dark Forest, and more. We were like brothers—in spirit, if not in looks. No one was happier for Merc than I.
“We’re running late,” he said.
“I’m told weddings always do,” I said, with a sidelong glance at Sapphrina.
Merc shook his head. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”
“I think that’s normal.”
“This isn’t pre-wedding jitters. Something feels off.”
“Merc, all is planned to the last detail. What could possibly go wrong?”
He gave me a pained look. “Never ask that question. Raella’s last wedding was a complete debacle.”
“Wasn’t that your fault?”
Mercury frowned. “She was to wed the wrong man.” Many years ago, Raella’s late father, King Raegon, arranged her marriage to Prince Halogen, obnoxious heir to the throne of neighboring Orphalia, despite her love for Mercury. The wizard shrugged. “What was I to do?”
“Steal the bride, blast your way out of the city, and ride hard for Caratha with the Raelnan army in hot pursuit?” I had heard the story more than once.
Merc flashed what was almost a grin. “See what I mean? You never know what might happen. Raella has many enemies. I have even more. What better time for them to strike?”
I shook my head. “Merc, brighten up! You’re to marry the love of your life and that’s that!”
“I hope so.” He passed through the Sunfire Gate.
“Sour to a fault,” I said, shaking my head.
“He’s naught to worry of, lad,” said Hotfur. She clapped me on the back. “I’ve twelve companies posted around the temple and the Gryphon Corps in the air. We’ll have no trouble.”
“The queen!” said Sapphrina. She and Rubis clutched each other with excitement.
The crowd redoubled its cheers as the queen’s coach came into view. Trumpeters in full livery marched before her. Lancers of the Royal Regiment preceded her coach, which was drawn by ten golden horses. A trooper bearing the queen’s personal standard rode forward and planted it to the left of the Sunfire Gate. It resembled the state banner, but with inverted coloring and the addition of a crown and wreath of roses.
The twins curtsied, Hotfur saluted, and I bowed low. I lent Her Majesty my hand as she stepped down from the coach. Raella Shurbenholt looked like a young goddess. This was only natural, as she was a direct descendant of the Goddess Rae, whose son Blaze Shurben founded Raelna almost one thousand years ago. Raella wore a glittering gown of gold brocade embellished with sunstones, rubies, topaz, and diamonds. A dozen ladies-in-waiting helped unfurl her lengthy train. The queen’s delicate figure might have been lost amid so much cloth, but for her regal aura. Raella’s fine, pale, elfin face was contrasted by reddish-blond hair piled high on her head and apparently held there by magic. I saw no pins, only her royal diadem of chased gold. Most striking, however, were her haunting blue eyes. They were like ancient and timeless doorways to a hidden realm of wisdom. When Raella looked at me I felt she was peering into my very soul.
She may well have been.
I bowed again while the noble ladies arranged themselves.
“I thank you, dear Jason,” said Raella. Her voice was sweet and silvery as a harp. “But Champion of Rae, hero chosen of The Gods, truest friend of my beloved, to me you do not bow. We have discussed this.”
“We have, Your Majesty,” I said. “On this occasion I bow to your happiness. Pray indulge me.”
Raella’s laughter was like the bubbling of a pure mountain spring. “Well spoken, sir! Let it be so. But only this once.” Her lips formed a thin moue at a sudden thought. “Does Mercury still fret?”
Before I could reply, a bluebird lit on Raella’s outstretched finger and chirped happily. Field mice, a few squirrels, several chipmunks, and a couple of rabbits peered at her adoringly from the cover of the hedge. I expected them to enact a choreographed musical number at any moment.
“He does,” I said. “Needlessly so.”
She sighed. “It is too much his custom.” The queen glanced skyward. “Noon draws nigh. Then we will wed at last. At long last.”
“Rae make it so,” I said.
Hotfur escorted the twins to their seats as the last guests settled into place. I stood at the threshold of the Sunfire Gate and awaited my signal to enter the temple. Raella, as Rae’s high priestess, might have presided over her own wedding—which would have been awkward, though not unprecedented—but had elected to allow the Holy Church of Rae’s second-ranking priest to officiate. Deputy Supreme Prelate Ambor Tresk was well-fed, deeply tanned, and resplendent in red and gold vestments. He stood before the altar, facing me down the aisle.
He raised his arms.
The guests in the temple park fell silent. The crowds without also sensed the time was near. A reverent hush descended on Rae City. The ceremony would commence at noon, the sun’s most potent hour, when shadows were banished and Rae’s light lit the world most strongly.
Noon came, marked by two beats on a great bass drum.
The Deputy Supreme Prelate lowered his arms.
The trumpets sounded.
The guests rose as one.
Musicians struck up an overture.
I stepped through the Sunfire Gate, with my hand on the hilt of my sword. I too wore the queen’s colors today, an ensemble of red and gold with a high-collared, close-fitting jacket, an excess of piping and buttons, and a short cape. I looked to the left, right and center. Satisfied that all was well, I proclaimed my well-practiced line: “Behold! She comes: the Daughter of Rae!” This unsubtle bit of theater was to impress upon all present, as if they did not know, that a queen of Rae’s own blood walked among them, with the Sword of Rae (that was me) at her call.
My line unflubbed, I stepped aside so that the queen might enter the temple. All the assembly bowed their heads when she did. With her ladies following behind to carry the train, Raella made a stately march down the aisle. I kept pace with her, two steps behind and to her right.
When we reached the altar, the ladies lined up to the left. I stepped right to stand beside Mercury, now switching to my role as his supporter, or best man.
The queen and Mercury joined hands. The Deputy Supreme Prelate offered a prayer of thanksgiving to all-wise, all-knowing, all-seeing Goddess Rae. Having met the goddess, I considered his praise only one-third accurate. Rae seemed a bit scatterbrained to me. But she was also my self-appointed patron goddess, so I kept such blasphemous observations to myself.
Next came a lengthy hymn of praise from the Holy Sunlight Chorus. Tresk then delivered a sermon on love, devotion, marriage, and the benefits of fresh air and sunshine. This was followed by another hymn. I stifled a yawn. Hotfur was visibly restless. Merc was annoyed. The twins were pictures of composure.
The priest prayed again, begging the Sun Goddess to shower favor upon the royal couple and their realm, including its principal towns and various duchies, counties, and other fiefs, which he listed by name for Rae’s convenience. The chorus sang a third hymn. Then, at last, the priest began the marriage rite. Or at least circled closer to it:
“So let us before The Gods and this company perform the most sacred and holy rite of joining and union for which we have gathered here in this place on this day together. Let us seal with Rae’s blessed perfection this favored couple in holy matrimony. Let us rejoice as they begin a new life together. Let us—”
“Let us get on with it,” growled Merc.
The Deputy Supreme Prelate blanched. “Ahem. Do you, Raella of the Shurbenholts, Daughter of Rae and by Her Divine Grace rightful Queen of Raelna, Princess of the Silver Sands, et cetera, take this man Mercury to be your husband, to share with him your fortunes high or low; to love, comfort, honor and keep him, in sickness and in weal; and to cleave unto him to the exclusion of all others as commanded by the Rites of Uxora and the Holy Book of Rae, Revised Edition?”
“With all my heart, I do,” said Raella, gazing into the wizard’s eyes.
“Do you, Mercury Boltblaster, take this woman Raella to be your wife; to share with her your fortunes high or low; to love, comfort, honor, keep and uphold her, in—”
“All this I do,” said Mercury.
The prelate was startled by the interruption, but nodded. Mercury flashed a trace of a smile. I suppressed a chuckle. Raella, ignoring Mercury’s breach of decorum, beamed up at him, her face aglow with love and happiness. Despite Merc’s fears, it looked like we were going to get through the wedding without incident.
The priest cleared his throat. “Then by the power of Holy Rae, before The Gods and this company, I do pronounce and proclaim thee to be, from this moment forward, forever and eternally, hus—urracht!”
An arrow appeared in the Deputy Supreme Prelate’s chest. He clutched at the shaft, staggered backward, and fell dead across the altar.
Royal Crush © 2015 Dan McGirt. All rights reserved.
That’s all for now! Thanks for reading…and stay tuned for Royal Crush, coming soon!