Laud and praise to thee, thou good editor of my books.

So, I’ve got the contract for Too Many Elf Princes, and we haven’t quite started on the copy editing process yet, but on the content editing side, my editor said to me “I’m curious about Kjartan’s relationship to his mum, can we have a bit more explanation there? Oh, and could you beef up the romance with a capital R in the second half of the book?”

I thought “well, the first thing will be easy enough. His relationship with his mum isn’t really relevant, so I’ll just put a paragraph in early on explaining this, and that will be done.” But clearly my editor knew more than I did, because when it came to the big commitment scene, it turned out that Kjartan’s (non)relationship with his mum was pivotal, and I’ve just spent the morning crying over it as I typed.

A good editor and an obliging muse are two wonderful things.

Have an excerpt to celebrate 🙂

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Too Many Fairy Princes

In the throne room, the king had been dressed in gold, and a thin film of gold leaf had been blown onto the exposed white, waxy skin of his face and hands. The great cavern of a room faced due east, and as the sun came up, the king caught its light and threw it back in a dazzle that lit the walls.

The night’s damp air was held back by a magical shield such as closed off Kjartan’s rooms, and the scent was all dust and dryness, cracked and sifted as desert sand, spiced with turpentine and frankincense and other preservative resins.

Volmar’s eyes were dry as they gazed on his dead son, dressed still in his white sleep robe, but covered in a blanket of polar-bear fur, and with an emerald circlet in his fiery hair.

The King’s eyes could not be other than dry, the moisture in his tear ducts having evaporated a dozen years ago. They made a scratching noise when he blinked, and the hall was so silent, Kjartan could hear it from where he stood at the foot of the dais, on the circle of mother of pearl set into the floor that marked the traditional place for an accuser.

On the circle of slate opposite, Tyrnir yawned and failed to raise a hand to cover it. He could not – his hands being bound together behind him in three cords of marsh grass and one of twisted seaweed.

They stood together, dark holes in the radiance of the morning, while the conches blew harsh and mournful notes to welcome another dawn, and the silver trumpets echoed them, in threat and warning to the sea-elves. We are still watching. We are still ready. Our knives await you.

Then the sun slipped a little higher into the heavens and its beam slid off the golden king onto the floor, and in the suddenly dimmed light they stirred back to life.

“So,” Volmar creaked, looking down at the bruises around Gisli’s mouth. “After an age of stagnation, we move and strive again. Which one of you was it?”

“It was Tyrnir, my king.” The strange not-pain had given way to a kind of hollow lightness beneath Kjartan’s breastbone. It gave his voice a tone like metal, and made him feel tall as thunderclouds. “Lob here, and Tuburrow will tell you I took this…” he held out the button like a soul-stone in a palm that didn’t shake, “from Gisli’s hand as they brought him here.”

“They fall off all the time,” Tyrnir scoffed. “And he collects them. You know he does – rooms and rooms of buttons and belt toggles, boot plaques and broken pendants. And you think this is enough to accuse your own brother of fratricide?”

“I have the coat you were wearing yesterday…”

Lob held it out in two of his six arms.

“Look where the material has been torn. That button didn’t fall off, it was grabbed, wrenched, when our brother fought back against you.”

Tyrnir gave a sharp sigh and shifted his weight onto one foot, either deliberately or genuinely nonchalant. “One of the riding birds tore it off, when Gisli and I were at the scrapes yesterday. It rolled to the boy’s feet and I told him he could keep it. For his collection, you know? He was grateful.”

Avenging angel did not seem to be one of Kjartan’s talents. His lightness crumpled in on itself. He ground his teeth. “You came to ask me, yesterday, if the youngest son always won. I said yes. So you made it that you are the youngest son. You killed him, brother. Don’t try and…”

“I agree,” the king sat straighter in his seat, hitching himself upright with slow, deliberate toil. Already the gold foil had begun to flake off onto his collar, leaving him particoloured in glory and decay. “Do not try to deny it, if it’s true, Tyrnir.” He flicked his fingers towards the black clad woman who stood behind the throne, her mother of pearl skin gleaming beneath her deep hood. “Aud, does he lie?”

“He does, my king.”

“You see. Simpler then to tell me the truth. Did you kill Gisli, Tyrnir, or must we look elsewhere for our prince-slayer?”

Tyrnir cast Aud, the court’s archmage, a glance that promised retribution. She smiled, and the smug invulnerability of it seemed to puncture his resistance. “Oh,” he said, “very well. Yes, I killed him. I want to win. I will do what it takes.”

Kjartan thought his father coughed, at first – weevils lodged in his throat, perhaps. But then that part of him, inside, where the not-pain was, flinched and contracted, as it had learned to do very early in his life. Things became – if not more bearable – at least more numb. For his father laughed, laughed so wildly he had to press his arms around his middle to stop his stomach from bursting.

“Well, good. I’m glad to see one of you has some gumption. Surprised to see you’ve stopped at one, though. Kjartan stayed awake all night, I suppose?”

Tyrnir laughed and raised his dark eyes to regard his father fondly. “Kjartan is no threat. Once I’ve killed Bjarti, Kjartan will give me the kingdom freely. All he wants is to be left alone. He doesn’t care.”

And that was true enough. He didn’t want any of this. If he had stopped to think, he would have acknowledged it, stepped down, surrendered, glad to be spared the unpleasantness. But somewhere inside, squeezed by pressure into a heat like that at the earth’s core, Kjartan was angry, and his anger worked his mouth without going through his mind.

“I do care now! Now I care! I won’t leave my home in the hands of a man who killed his own brother. Don’t either of you hurt for him? He was your kin and he liked you both. How can you stand there and look at his corpse and laugh? I will have this dung-grown kingdom just to pay you both back for that.”

“Aha,” Volmar settled back with a sigh like a dying breath and gave his youngest a patronising smile. “Lose one enemy, gain another, eh, Tyrnir? Stamp on the eggs before they hatch, for even a baby dragon can give you a nasty searing. I must say I haven’t had this much fun since I died. My boys, you may just have been worthwhile after all.”

He motioned Aud forward, and with a touch of her finger the cords that bound Tyrnir fell away. Tyrnir rubbed his wrists one after another and looked at Kjartan thoughtfully. Then he smiled like the curve of a scythe as it approached a field of long grass.

“But Kjartan is no dragon, father. And soon he will be nothing at all.”

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