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  • L.L. Stephens

Excerpt from The Kheld King

Updated: Jul 28, 2022

If you've read Sordaneon, you won't be surprised that the Kheld king of the title is Stefan Stauberg-Randolph. Here is a scene in which Stefan, having survived an attack on his life, meets with Marenthro, Permephedon's immortal wizard. This excerpt is from the unedited manuscript. The Kheld King is scheduled to be published in November 2022.

Stefan almost didn’t go to see Marenthro. He would much rather have gone down to the kitchen and joined Cullen digging spoons into a pot of pudding. Or maybe bedded one of the maids he’d been letting under his coverlet for nearly two years and whose warm round body promised delights just as toothsome. Marenthro, on the other hand, still made him feel like a schoolboy standing before his tutor, afraid of giving a wrong answer.

His grandfather’s study — even after all these months, he could not think of it as his —was part of the royal suite of rooms, reached through a door from the bedchamber. Sometimes it was there, and sometimes not. Immediately after Marc Frederick’s death, servants said, the door had opened not to the study but to the room beyond the study, the king’s private library. In his own youth, Stefan remembered the door sometimes led to the Queen’s bed chamber, which was generally unoccupied. The study had reappeared following Stefan’s coronation, servants claimed. He put his hand on the doorknob with some curiosity about what room he would find. It almost disappointed him to see the study, with its tables and collections, walls papered with maps and odd works of art. And there was Marenthro, wearing gray trousers and a burgundy tunic so plain it simply highlighted his bright good looks, seated at his grandfather’s worktable and holding a strange-looking, pale green blade.

“Take a seat.” The wizard of Permephedon pointed to a brocade chair.

Did kings obey orders to sit? Stefan doubted it, but Marenthro had been outside the sovereignty of kings for generations. He had also been a kind of uncle to him and his brother for far too long to make an issue of it now. The man’s visits had generally been pleasant enough, until Stefan got older. Not that many years ago, Marenthro would give him gifts and perform tricks, like turning walnuts into butterflies. He supposed that meant Marenthro could work real magic but he didn’t know — not for sure. Only recently had he begun to think magic a bad thing. He took the seat.

“Your mother’s happy. She was worried for you.”

“You kept her calm, I suppose. Let her know I was all right?” He had learned long ago that Marenthro seemed to know everything.

“I tried.”

Despite himself, Stefan smiled. He might be irritated with his mother for her criticism of how he had handled the whole thing with Dorilian, but he didn’t doubt for a heartbeat how much she loved him or that she’d worried herself sick.

“Do you know who did it?” He scoured Marenthro’s face for any clue at all, but saw only an infuriating, placid refusal to impart information. “Oh, that’s right,” he continued. “You don’t ever tell us anything we really need to know.”

“You don’t need to know. You need to find out.”

“You mean who?”

“No. Why. Why will lead you to who.”

“And who might lead me to why. You know, you’re not as helpful as you pretend to be.”

Now it was Marenthro who smiled. “My help is greatly overrated. What I am, however, is knowledgeable. There are few doors in this world I have not opened. Some of them are doors I hope you never do.”

“Which ones would those be?”

Marenthro turned the knife over, displaying it to him. It was long and thin, a green flicker. “Do you know what this is?”

“A knife.”

“More than that. It’s a tullun blade.”

Stefan had heard of those. He had learned about them during his schooling at Permephedon, but he’d never seen one. When Marenthro held it out to him, he took it. To his surprise, for something that looked so light, like it was made of glass, it had good balance. And the edge… “Ow!” He’d hardly touched his left thumb pad to it, but it had cut deep, nearly to bone. He slammed the knife down on the desk and wrapped his bleeding thumb in the bottom hem of his shirt. “Damn you!” When he looked at the knife again, the blade was clean, no trace of blood at all.

“The wound is deep, but the cut is so thin, so fine that if you bind it well it will heal quickly and without any scar. You should have remembered what you learned about tullun blades.”

“I know, I know. They can cut anything. And the only thing that can sheathe them is a scabbard made of the same stupid skeleton.” He’d remembered that bit too late.

“A skeleton of which there was only one. Both blades and scabbards are very rare. This one—” Marenthro gestured at the blade again, “—killed Dorilian Sordaneon’s grandfather.”

Stefan’s head shot up. “The Rill Lord? This blade?” He had been in Merath the day of that death, five years ago. Sebbord’s assassination had led to Dorilian’s later attempt to kill him. He picked up the blade again, examining the edge.

“This very one. You know who wielded it, don’t you?”

Only now did he see where this was going. “A Kheld man. Trahoc Caddenson,” he answered. Except it wasn’t Khelds who had planned the deed—or who had provided a rare and priceless weapon for the job. Marc Frederick had always believed it was the Seven Houses, the cartel of noble families that controlled most of Essera’s Rill traffic.

But Dorilian had been there when Sebbord was slain, had been just feet away, and had seen the knife wielding Kheld slash his grandfather’s neck clean through. And he had reacted violently when the Seven Houses showed him evidence that Stefan had met with Trahoc Caddenson.

“Dorilian believed the who,” Marenthro said.

“And not the why,” Stefan acknowledged grimly. The cartel had wanted Sebbord dead for reasons of their own.

“Don’t do the same thing he did.”

Stefan nodded that he understood. He weighed the blade in his hand, marveling that he held the weapon that had killed a Highborn prince, a Sordaneon. That act had outraged Staubauns and led to the deaths of hundreds of Khelds. He had never forgotten, but what he remembered most was the result… same as Dorilian. He had never expected that they would be alike, or that history might possibly be trying to repeat itself.

But when he looked up, he was alone in the room with only a tullun blade in his hand and more questions than when he had entered.

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