Welcome to my stop on the virtual book tour for The Trials of Ashmount. It is a dark and violent book. Here is the blurb that will tell you about the book:
Cedain is destined to collapse.
Across a world rife with blood, betrayal, and brutality, five people wade through unexpected tragedies.
An egotistical student, a fleeing refugee, a nomadic warrior, a fallen noble, and a criminal in hiding navigate the sinister dealings of politicians, two sudden wars, and nefarious lies that surface at Ashmount—a university dedicated to teaching the five branches of magic.
Survival means adapting or dying.
~ Edelbrock Brendis ~
1st Cycle of Autumn, 231st Reign of Garcovi
The resplendent mirror rested inside a solid gold frame with plenty of embedded colorful jewels imported from foreign countries. There was a high relief of an exuberant lion chasing a spectacular doe, glass splitting them forever apart. Pretending to admire his reflection, Edelbrock Brendis put on maroon silk robes, covering his overweight naked body. He wiped away drying sweat from his graying goatee, cleared his throat, and took a long swig of chilled water from a brass pitcher. He glanced at the mirror and saw Trigg Gelbrandy lounging on rumpled satin sheets. Trigg was an important noble, one of five people in possession of a deed to one-fifth of Lord Scayde Haklon’s gladiator arena, Buzzard’s Bowl.
Trigg smiled, yellowing teeth shining through his thick bushy black beard, playing with Edelbrock’s sanity. To Edelbrock’s dismay, he hadn’t found a single gray hair on Trigg’s head. He’d thoroughly investigated earlier, under the pretense of gazing at the man’s lips, just before planting his own on them. Distractions. That’s what it took to keep Trigg Gelbrandy happy.
Trigg rolled over on the bed, spent cock flopping to one side like a wet sock. “You don’t have to leave just yet.” The high-pitched voice irritated Edelbrock, and the shock that it emanated from the muscular fellow would never disappear. This begging had become a routine during the more recent visits. Trigg was getting attached.
Edelbrock cleared his throat again. There was still some Trigg in it. “Now, now.” He turned around and noticed a splotch on his newly purchased robes. He sighed. Whether it was grease from food they’d consumed earlier in the evening or more Trigg, the stain would likely not come out.
He took a moment to unclench his jaw and smooth out his face, putting on a mere grimace in place of his utter horror and frustration. He’d purchased the robes to appear much wealthier than he was, and it cost him. There’d be no way to pawn them off now. It was worse than that. He’d spent extra, requesting custom-made pockets inside the robes where he could hide various parchments and other necessities. Inside the sleeve of his right arm, he held a more nefarious device. If his wife ever found out how much he spent on the robes, she’d kill him. She’d kill him for being here with Trigg. Adultery was not something he expected her to brush off.
It’ll all be worth it soon. He couldn’t wait to rid himself of the nuisance. Trigg was becoming too clingy, too needy. And like most nobility, he complained about things Edelbrock only hoped would happen to him.
“You know I risk staying, especially this late.” Edelbrock dropped his arms to his sides. His right hand retracted into the sleeve of the robe, checking to make sure everything was still where it should be. It was.
He scanned the bedroom, grander than it had any right to be. A wooden chair with a plush cushion on the seat sat in front of an expensive writing table made of pine and stained a glorious mahogany. Strewn over the lush, carpeted floor were articles of clothing that created a path from the open closet to the bed—various garments that were each worth far more than Edelbrock made in a cycle. The open window that he always entered and exited to avoid prying eyes from curious people currently allowed a cool breeze to filter through the room.
“Well, don’t leave without saying goodbye.” Trigg was whining again and shivering. He wrapped himself in a sheet, only covering his chest. His lower half remained visible and shrinking. He patted the bed beside him. He’d want a kiss. They’d been seeing one another for nearly two cycles now, once or twice a week. On a tough week, it could be three. This week was a tough week. “I would like it if we could just get rid of her.”
Anytime Trigg brought up Edelbrock’s wife, a perfect image of her likeness birthed in his mind. Which reminded him he needed to leave. If she was still awake, she’d be irate. Judging by the hour, it was unlikely she would be. But precautions.
A flash of annoyance must have flickered across his face because Trigg stood. “Is something wrong, Lordy?” A terrible nickname. Edelbrock was a minor nobleman, which didn’t come with any perks other than a useless title: baron. It was a significant gift from the king to bestow this upon a simple soldier, thus the “lord.” At first, Trigg called him Lord E but that’d evolved into Lordy.
The things I have to deal with just to progress in life. Married to a kook whose father was one of the king’s advisers, fucking a moronic man-child, Edelbrock didn’t have a guess for what was next in life. He hoped for something successful.
He realized he needed to respond. He shook his head and offered a thin smile. “No. I’m just worried Jaylena will suspect. I’ve been gone far too long already, and it’s not common for me to be out this late. I’m running out of excuses, and ‘working late’ isn’t going to keep . . . working. She suspects I may do something carnal.” He cleared his throat again—why? He’d never experienced any difficulty with Trigg before—and wondered if his wife would taste Trigg on his lips. A fear he often went home with. “I must hurry.” Edelbrock took a step toward Trigg, left hand extended to pull him in for a hug and kiss farewell. A routine he’d been using to train him.
As predicted, Trigg leaped to his feet and embraced Edelbrock. He whispered into Edelbrock’s ear, “One day, we need to make this official, Lordy. Together we could—”
“It’s as official as it needs to be, Trigg.” The nobleman stiffened in Edelbrock’s arm. He knew that would be a crushing blow to Trigg, who had fallen madly in love with Edelbrock, as planned. What an unfortunate problem for Trigg. Edelbrock slipped his right hand back into the sleeve, toying around with the device for a moment. He found the trigger and pulled.
“What was tha—” Trigg slid from Edelbrock’s grasp, thumping onto the wooden floor. A small dart stuck out of his upper thigh. Drool slipped from Trigg’s mouth, and a fading clarity was fast disappearing in his eyes.
“Sleep well,” Edelbrock said. He bent over, removing the poisoned dart from the man’s leg. Trigg would die in a matter of minutes, and the charade would finally end. He retrieved the brass pitcher and took another sip of the water, clearing away the taste of Trigg’s lips. He wouldn’t have to kiss him again.
He crossed the room, stepping on two of Trigg’s fingers as he did so, and opened the second drawer down on the writing table. Inside were the two items he needed: an example of Trigg Gelbrandy’s handwriting and the official deed listing the Gelbrandy estate as owner of one-fifth of Buzzard’s Bowl, a name borrowed from previous gladiators of the arena. Fighters? Gladiators? Edelbrock didn’t know what to call them. Didn’t really care, truth be told. Somehow, the nobility adopted the name. And instead of giving the arena a grandiose title, they’d accepted the change.
Buzzard’s Bowl’s popularity spiked in recent times, after Lord Haklon invested significant funds into creating a business focused on the fights. He built five identical buildings and called them Houses, selling deeds to them. The owners could then purchase, buy, and trade warriors during the off-season, and four times a year, they’d make loads of money during the games. Not to mention the fame that came with the spectators cheering for men and women fighting under your name. Edelbrock wanted nothing more than to be one of these five families. He didn’t care if his House performed well or not. Either way, he’d have a lot of power and riches. And then he discovered Trigg, and the golden opportunity showed itself.
Edelbrock pulled out the chair in front of the writing table and guided his body onto the inviting cushion. He dipped one of the fine swan quills into a pewter inkwell and left it there for a moment while he grabbed a nearby blank piece of parchment. Then he copied Trigg’s handwriting. He used a letter Trigg never finished. Within a few minutes, Edelbrock felt confident he had the various quirks of Trigg’s handwriting figured out. Inside one of his pockets he’d paid extra for, Edelbrock retrieved a stamped parchment—notarized by a money-hungry barrister who was apt to do these types of things regularly for anybody willing to cough up exorbitant sums—and drafted a will.
He assigned all property and monetary accounts to Trigg’s half-cousin’s son, as that was his closest living relative. The Gelbrandy family had been disappearing for quite some time, and with Trigg’s death, his surname would extinguish. By leaving everything to Trigg’s half-cousin’s son, Edelbrock hoped he was establishing a sense of reality, as the next part of the will would be difficult to sell. He scribbled his own name as the beneficiary of the deed to one-fifth of Buzzard’s Bowl. He finished off the document by assigning a few random riches to various friends Edelbrock knew about. Relief surged through him, knowing the time he’d spent researching was about to pay off.
Edelbrock slipped the will and the deed back into the second drawer down on the desk. He dried off the quill, replacing it in its spot, and gathered up the drafts he’d used to practice Trigg’s writing. Edelbrock hid those inside his robes for fire kindling at his own home. He wouldn’t leave any trace of evidence here.
He checked Trigg’s body. He wet his finger with his tongue and then wiped off the small circle of blood that had formed when the poisoned dart entered Trigg’s thigh. Edelbrock’s goal was to make it appear as if the man had dropped dead. He thought it would work well. If he were to be caught, he’d die. Any violent crime committed in Calrym meant a brusque hanging. A lifetime in prison if you were lucky.
Edelbrock looked at the bed where he’d acted adulterous. He had little regret. He didn’t exactly like Trigg, but it was fun to learn new things. Then he made his way to the open window, grunting to heave his body over the ledge. He face-planted on the graveled path that circled the manor. Cursing himself for becoming fatter as he aged, Edelbrock brushed rocks out of his skin and pulled up the hood to his robes. He hobbled toward his home, nursing a skinned knee and not looking forward to his wife’s questions concerning his whereabouts. If she reported him to her father, he’d be in a world of trouble.
Edelbrock lived in Lochwall, a bustling city, and thus, even after the moon had reached its peak, walking home in his dirty robes drew a suspicious eye or two. The drunks he cared little for. They certainly didn’t have room to judge. The patrolling guards were his primary concern. Somehow, he didn’t run into any tonight. He kept to side alleys, claustrophobic paths with buildings on either side, threatening to suffocate him on his way through. A cool mid-autumn breeze swept between his legs, and he pulled his robes tighter. Something about it felt ominous.
He found his modest home not, as he expected, dark with the quiet of the sleeping, but with several lights aglow. Because of their financial state—Jaylena had a habit of overspending because of the lifestyle she came from—they could only afford rushlights. The mere sight of the small candles burning actual fat caused immediate distress. Edelbrock recalled a time when they’d placed half a dozen lanterns around the house. Now? Rushlights. The ominous feeling intensified.
Then his wife screamed, followed by the sound of something smashing. Narrowing his eyes in concern, he opened the door and hurried inside. He slipped his boots off and walked into the kitchen where Jaylena stood in a state of dishevelment, a broken ceramic vase on the floor and blood trickling down her hand. She wore one of her fancy full-length dresses—a memory of riches long since spent—and stood in that stiff, awkward way she often held herself, a result of her noble upbringing.
“Where have you been?” She emphasized each word through gritted teeth. Her matted hair stuck to her in sweaty clumps, and narrowed eyes stared at him over her pointed nose. She carried herself in the typical rigid-backed manner she often did. In fact, he felt much like the mouse a hawk stares down right before it swoops in and claims its prey.
“Securing our future, my darling.” Cheerfulness will fix this. Then, avoiding the broken vase pieces on the floor, he went to kiss her. One of the king’s dukes, her father agreed to let them marry, under but one condition: after they married, he didn’t want to deal with them anymore. Edelbrock was never the man’s choice for his daughter, but love presided. A dissipating, forgotten love. But if the duke received word Jaylena was unhappy? It would become a larger scandal than their relationship already was, and Edelbrock could find himself on the wrong end of a noose.
She sneered but allowed a peck to grace her cheek. Well enough, he didn’t desire kissing her lips so soon after his night with Trigg. It just felt wrong. “I’ve had enough of these late nights without knowing where you are or what you’ve been up to, Ed.” She paused a moment, seeming to consider something, “I’ve had half a mind to write to my father.” The threat lingered a moment between them.
“Heh. Uh. Well, you don’t have to do that, my love.” He gave Jaylena a reassuring, though nervous, pat on her shoulder. Truth be told, if Edelbrock had the balls, he would’ve disposed of his wife similar to Trigg. The problem was that Jaylena’s father wouldn’t be dense enough to buy it, and Jaylena’s proximity to Calrym’s king would draw out the anger of the regent. “Now, can we please go to bed before we wake up Gordy? I’ve had an endless day at work.” The fact that his nickname for his son rhymed with Trigg’s nickname for Edelbrock wasn’t lost on him. But he’d come up with his first. And he worried Jaylena would find it odd if he stopped calling his son by it. Just being paranoid.
“I will not!” Her shrill voice echoed throughout the house, and a cry emanated from one of the other rooms. Gordane had woken up. “And now you’ve woken up the baby!” She stomped out of the kitchen to console their son. If there was one thing that Jaylena did well, it was take care of Gordane. Otherwise, she was turning into more and more of a pain in the ass. Even though she took care of Gordane, something was off there. Had been for days. The first cycle or two of Gordane’s life, Jaylena doted on the boy. Now? It seemed more of an obligation. Something was off.
Sighing, Edelbrock swept up the remnants of the vase with a broom. Long ago, they’d employed servants. They’d had money for fun things. Now, he’d borrowed more money than he could pay back in a lifetime. Except his scheme had worked. They’d be rich soon. Gordane stopped crying, which helped Edelbrock’s sanity. After ensuring there were no more loose pieces of ceramic on the ground, he walked to their bedroom, discarded his stained robes into a chair, and dumped the rest of his attire on the floor. He collapsed onto their very average bed, naked and exhausted.
The bedroom door flew open, and his wife stood there red-faced. “You dare to sleep now?” she shrieked, stepping in and slamming the door shut. Gordane cried once more.
For the love of Mother Avani. He’d cried out to their god more than enough times to know she wouldn’t help with anything small like this.
“You, who dares sleep with another person!”
Edelbrock blinked, confused. Jaylena couldn’t know. It was impossible. Nobody followed him, he was sure of it. There was such a certainty in her face that he knew no matter what he said, she would believe that he was an adulterer.
“L-listen, uh, I . . .” Edelbrock might be a smooth talker and great at manipulating people when he planned for it, but surprised? He had no chance.
“I’ve had enough of your lies, Ed!” Gordane bawled in the background, but it didn’t even phase Jaylena. “The marshal will be here soon. I’m over this.” She almost sounded remorseful, but her face contorted with restraint, her sharp nose pointed slightly up, as if she were better than he.
It took a moment for Edelbrock to process that. “You what?” His mouth fell open as if he were the local drunk. Images of riches, a bedroom as glorious as Trigg’s, a happy Jaylena pregnant with another baby, little Gordane standing at Edelbrock’s knee, them sitting in the stands of Buzzard’s Bowl, crowds cheering and jeering alike at his men and women who were fighting to their deaths, and his happiness—the power to buy and do whatever he wanted rather than live his simple life. All of it came crashing down around him. Immediate. Irresolute.
“We’re having too many difficulties, Ed. We can’t keep living like common hoodlums. And I know what you’ve been doing. With him.” Her eyes narrowed in disgust.
A knock sounded on their front door. “Lady Brendis? It’s Marshal Everic Deywin.” A pause. “You all right?”
Edelbrock’s face lit on fire. Everything he was conspiring for, everything he’d done—and swallowed—was for her and his son. His family. And this was the thanks he was to receive? “What the fuck did you tell them?”
“Oh, I know all about your schemes, Ed.” She wouldn’t stop sneering. This information, this gloating, was making her more and more intolerable. “My father wasn’t too pleased to find out that you were fucking a man behind my back! Lord Haklon told my father that the only way to beat that behavior out of somebody is to kill them, though I said I didn’t think you were actually into men in that way . . . I mean, are you?” She looked at him, expectant and unsure.
“What? No, no!” He was at a loss for words. And the question seemed unnecessary. Who cared if he was? Was he? There weren’t any laws against it. Panicked, he didn’t know what to do, what to say. She’d caught him. But everything he’d done, he’d done for her. Right? Maybe he’d gotten some pleasure out of it, but not enough for her to get the marshal. This was madness. His life was about to crash down around him. He needed to figure something out.
“Lady Brendis?” The marshal called again. The pounding on the door shook the house. Gordane’s cries grew louder.
“You really fucked up, Jay. I had it. Trigg Gelbrandy, the owner of one of the five stakes of the arena, was in my pocket—”
“And if the rumors are true, he was inside your ass too!” Tears started falling from her eyes. Edelbrock was certain they were not tears of pain, but of anger. “You betrayed me! So I’ve done what needed to be done, Ed.”
“I just secured incredible wealth for us, you ignorant bit—” Their front door burst open with a loud bang. Heavy footsteps thundered into the household.
“Jaylena! Are you in here?” This was not the marshal’s voice.
Gordane continued crying. Jaylena opened their bedroom door and called out to them. “Yes, I’m just in here.” She spared a moment to shoot Edelbrock a look of disgust. A look of loathing.
What has she done? Realizing five or six men were about to burst into his bedroom while he was naked, Edelbrock threw on his maroon robes.
Appearing in the doorway, for Jaylena stepped aside to allow them entry, were several faces that Edelbrock recognized: Lochwall’s marshal, two of his men, and the barrister—Chardaine of the law offices of Roachford and Singleton’s—who signed the documentation that Edelbrock forged Trigg’s will upon. The barrister’s expression told him everything: he’d sold Edelbrock out.
Behind the four men, a fifth voice called out, “Jay, are you all right?” A caring voice. A voice that used her nickname. A nickname that only two men before ever used—Jaylena’s father and Edelbrock himself. This was neither of them.
The marshal and his soldiers stepped back, in deference to the fifth man who walked in. He strode over to Jaylena, gave her a gentle kiss on the lips, and then turned to glare at Edelbrock. Edelbrock couldn’t help but notice the way his wife swooned for this man.
“You, my friend, are in a lot of trouble.” Lord Scayde Haklon, owner of Buzzard’s Bowl, waved the forged will at Edelbrock and shook his finger at him while offering a got-you smile.
Fuck. He may have even whispered it.
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