Saturday, February 27, 2021
Of Sword and Shadow By A.L. Sowards: Blog Tour Review, Excerpt, and Giveaway
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EXCERPT from Of Sword and Shadow:
Thebes, Greece, Spring 1379
I don’t remember the name my mother gave me. Nor can I recall each of the hundreds of names I’ve used since. But the morning I was to steal five sheets of paper from Don Paco de Folgueres, I would be Anna, if anyone asked.
Anna was a safe sort of name, giving few clues about a person’s birth or loyalties. Anna could be Greek, like most of the population. Or Anna could be a descendant of the Franks, who created the Duchy of Athens after they sacked Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. Anna could also be a Catalan, whose ancestors had worked for, then turned on the last Frankish Duke, Walter de Brienne. They’d defeated him in battle and ruled Thebes and the Duchy of Athens ever since.
Thomas and everyone else I knew called me Girl or Little Mouse. Names weren’t as important as abilities for people in our line of work, where failure could mean starvation, a flogging, mutilation, or exile but where a commissioned burglary might offer a chance to break from the gutters completely.
The Greek scribe who worked for Don Paco de Folgueres had a desk in a small stone room bordering the property’s central courtyard. Light from the room’s sole window illuminated the wooden writing surface and a second table with four books, a supply of paper, parchment, and papyrus, reed pens, and ink. I found the documents I wanted among his scattered papers and slipped them between my dalmatica and tunica. I didn’t always wear both layers— clothes were expensive—but Thomas had taught me to dress the part most likely to lead to success, so I was respectable today. At least on the outside.
The scribe was absent, and that made my task easy. But a complication in
the form of a tall, brawny man appeared the moment I left the room. He was clean-shaven, and the hair reaching to the collar of his pourpoint was a few shades lighter than my raven locks. He had a straight nose and long ears, one of which was pierced with a gold earring. He gave me a friendly smile.
“Have you seen the scribe?” His words were Catalan but pronounced differently than what I was used to hearing from the class who ruled Thebes. I pretended not to understand. Perhaps if he thought I was Greek, he wouldn’t press me. I gave a small gesture of incomprehension with my shoulders.
He repeated his question, in Greek. That meant I would have to reply. “No. He seems to be out at the moment.”
The man surveyed the scribe’s room, and I surveyed him, noting his pleasant face and hazel eyes. He looked closer to twenty than to thirty years of age. The fitted hosa western men wore were meant to show off their masculine legs, and his legs were certainly worthy of admiration. My favorite Anna, daughter of the Emperor Alexios Komnenos, would have noticed him, much as she had noticed and commented on the pleasant forms of the Frankish crusaders who had passed through Constantinople on their way to take Jerusalem during the First Crusade. She’d also dismissed the handsome knights as ignorant barbarians, and I thought it best to follow her example.
Now that I had the documents I’d come for, I was eager to get away from the tall man with the earring and from Don Paco’s home. “I hope you find him soon.” And I did. If the scribe was busy with the earring man, he was less likely to notice his missing documents.
“Thank you.” The man gave me a nod and entered the scribe’s room.
I left, forcing myself to walk at a normal pace across the sunny, paved court- yard, past the fountain and the marble statue that dated back to times before the Frankish invasion.
The scribe stood near the gates, speaking with someone I took to be a Moor. A line ran across the Moor’s face, from his left temple to his lips, a pale-pink scar against skin of rich brown. His inquisitive eyes glanced at me as I passed.
A polite person would have gone back to the scribe’s office to tell the man who was seeking him where he could be found. But I was polite only when politeness suited my task.
“You there, what’s your business?” One of Don Paco’s men stepped in front of me. He was clothed in mail armor and carried an arming sword and a crossbow.
I’d spoken in Greek when I’d met the man with the earring, and my clothing was more Greek than western, so I kept my identity as Anna the Greek, for the moment. “I was visiting one of the weavers, a friend. We grew up on the same street, you see. She wanted my opinion on whether the cloth she is making has a strong enough warp thread or if she should order something with more twists.” I continued in rapid Greek, uncertain if he understood my language while I compared the thickness of the supposed warp thread to the thinness of the made-up weft thread. As I spoke, I gave silent gratitude to Zoe, the silk maker who had always welcomed me into her workshop. I could talk about silk long enough to bore all but the most dedicated of weavers. The Catalan man-at-arms waved me on quickly. It seemed the silk trade was not his passion. I relaxed as I walked along the streets of the Cadmea, Thebes’s fortified citadel. Don Paco’s property faded from view, then disappeared completely when I turned left after the bakery that sold the best durum wheat bread in the city. It also sold a more affordable loaf of summer wheat, barley, rye, and millet, and I was more familiar with the latter. I turned right after a wine merchant’s shop that specialized in muscat and malmsey. Then I ducked into a narrow side street. I took off my hair veil, and I didn’t want to put it on again. The early spring sun shone pleasantly, and I was neither respectable nor Christian, but bareheaded women stood out, and I didn’t want that. I turned the veil over so my head was covered in blue instead of yellow and walked farther into the alley. A tall man stepped out in front of me, blocking my path. The same man who had been looking for the scribe, but this time, there was no smile on his face. It seemed changing the color of my hair veil hadn’t prevented him from recognizing me. “I believe you took something from the scribe’s office. I need it.”
I tried my best to display confusion. “I took nothing from the scribe.”
“You’re the only one who was near that room from the time Rasheed distracted the scribe.” His eyes shifted to a spot behind me. I followed his glance. The Moor stood between me and the main street. So they were working together. And I’d benefited from their plan.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I tried to walk past the man with the earring, but he took my arm and held me. He didn’t squeeze, but I had a feeling it would be difficult to break his grip. A threatening longsword hung at his side. Another complication.
“I think you do. There was a letter on that table, delivered this morning, threatening Don Paco de Folgueres because he supported Maria of Sicily instead of Pedro of Aragon when King Frederick died.”
His intelligence was good. Better than mine. The letter was Catalan, and I didn’t read Catalan. I’d just memorized the name of the sender so I could verify I had the right document. The discord King Frederick’s death created had spilled into the Duchy—some local nobles had supported Maria because she was King Frederick’s daughter and his declared heir. Others had followed Pedro because he was a man. But the succession crisis was nearly two years in the past. Pedro had won. “I thought the Catalans had reconciled to their new lord.”
“On the surface, perhaps. The divisions are still there, underneath. King Pedro has stripped more than one Catalan noble of lands because they chose the losing side—just as Don Paco did.”
“Well, I hope you find your letter. I don’t have it.” I pulled away, but he didn’t let go.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t let you leave until you’ve given me the letter.” He gave me a smile again, but this time, the motion contained no friendliness. Maybe I shouldn’t have dismissed him quite so quickly as a typical westerner with more muscles than brain.
He’d chosen his ambush site well. A few streets over, there would have been a steady flow of foot traffic, but here, behind the wine shop, the alley was deserted. All the deliveries had been made far earlier in the day, so it was just me, the man with the earring, and the Moor.