The Skewed Throne Excerpt

Welcome to the website of fantasy author Joshua Palmatier.

The following is an excerpt from the novel The Skewed Throne by Joshua Palmatier, available from DAW Books, Inc. © 2005.

Chapter One

I focused on the woman with dark eyes and a wide face, on the basket she carried on her hip, a cloth covering its contents. The woman wore a drab dress, had long, flat, black hair. A triangle of cloth covered most of her head, two corners tied beneath her chin, easy to pick out in the crowd of people on the street. She moved without rushing, head lowered as she walked.

An easy mark.

My gaze shifted to the basket and my hand slid down to the dagger hidden inside my tattered shirt. My stomach growled.

I bit my upper lip, turned back to the woman’s downturned face, tried to catch her eyes from across the street. The eyes were the most revealing. But she’d moved farther away, paused now at the edge of an alley.

A moment later, she ducked into the narrow.

I hesitated on the edge of the street they called the Dredge, fingers kneading the handle of my dagger. People flowed past, not quite jostling me. I scanned the street, the people, noticed a guardsman, a cartman with brawny shoulders, a gutterscum thug. No one openly dangerous. No one overtly threatening to a fourteen-year-old girl pressed flat against a wall, mud- streaked, clothes more tattered than whole, hair so dirty its color was indistinguishable. A small girl--far, far too small for fourteen; far, far too thin to be alive.

Eyes hardening, I turned back to the mouth of the narrow where the woman had disappeared, watched its darkness.

Then I cut across the Dredge, cut through the crowd so smoothly I touched no one. I slid against the wall of the narrow, crouched low, until my eyes adjusted to the darkness. I listened. The noise of the street faded to a background wind, the world grayed. . . .

And in the new silence I heard the sound of footfalls on damp stone, steady and quick. I heard clothes rustling, heard the creak of wicker as a basket was shifted. The footsteps were receding.

In the cloaked darkness of the alley, I glanced back out toward the street, toward the movement, the sunlight. No one had seen me follow the woman. Not even the guardsman.

I turned back, slid deeper into the darkness, into the stench of refuse and piss and mildew. I moved without sound, with a cold, hungry intent, my stomach clenched and empty, thinking only of the basket, of the food it might represent. The woman’s footsteps continued, shuffling ahead on the dirty stone, splashing in unseen puddles. I drew in the stench of the alley, could almost smell the woman’s sweat. My hand closed on the handle of my dagger--

And the footsteps ahead slowed, grew wary.

I halted, drew close to the wall, hand pressed against its damp mud- brick.

Ahead, feet shuffled in place. The cold of the alley grew deeper, a coldness I felt echoed in my chest like the harsh burn of hoarfrost.

Then I heard another footstep, a heavier tread, a gasp as the woman cried out, the sound suddenly choked off.

Something heavy hit the cobbles, followed by rolling thuds, by the sound of a struggle: clothes rustling, harsh breaths, a horrifying gasping sound, choked and desperate. Like the gasping sounds of the man I’d killed three years before. Except these gasps were not wet and slick, choking on blood. These were dry and empty.

A sick, feverish shudder of horror rushed through my skin and I pressed against the mud-brick at my back, trying not to breathe. The coldness of hoarfrost prickling in my chest tightened, began to burn white, like the touch of the Fire that had passed through the city three years before. Fresh sweat prickled in my armpits, the center of my chest, making me shudder. My hand clenched on the handle of my dagger.

The gasping quieted, slowed. A strained grunting filtered from the darkness. It escalated, tight and short, then released in a trembling sigh. Almost like sobbing. This faded into soft breathing. Then there was a weighted thud, heavier than the first, and even the breathing faded.

I fidgeted, breath held close, hand gripping the sweaty hilt of the dagger. I’d let the dagger slip completely free without thinking. Had brought it to bear.

But no one emerged from the darkness. Not after twenty shortened breaths. Not after fifty.

And the icy Fire in my chest had died.

I relaxed, drew a steadying breath, then edged forward. A trickle of black water appeared, running through the alley’s center. I kept to the left wall, the bricks wet, left hand against the dampness, right hand holding the dagger.

Eleven paces further on I found the basket turned on its side, potatoes littering the cobbles. The cloth that had covered them was already stained with filth.

Three steps further, I found the woman’s body.

She lay crumpled to the ground, on her back, her feet bent beneath her thighs. One arm lay thrust out, the other close to her side. The kerchief covering her hair had been pushed askew and tangles of her hair lay matted to the stone. Her head lay in the trickle of scummy water, tilted slightly away.

I hunkered against the wall, scanned the darkness ahead, listening. But there was nothing but the sound of dripping water, the taste of damp growth.

I turned back to the woman, edged past her outflung arm, and knelt.

A dark band of blood encircled her neck, cut into her flesh. Her eyes were open, staring up, past me, into the darkness of the alley. Her lips were parted.

She looked like she was asleep, except she wasn’t breathing and her eyes were open.

I looked at the line of blood across her neck again, leaned forward--

And saw a thin cord loop down in front of my face.

I brought the dagger up instantly, but not before the cord snapped tight across my neck, not before I heard a guttural, masculine grunt as a man crossed the cord behind my neck and jerked it tight. The cord caught the dagger on its flat side and yanked it flat against my neck.

Then the man leaned upward and back, pressed his knee hard into my spine and pushed.

My body arched outward, the cord drawing tighter across my neck. My head fell back against the man’s shoulder so that his bearded cheek rested against mine, his breath hot against my chest. It stank of ale and fish and oil.

“A little young and thin for my tastes,” he gasped, drawing the cord tighter with a jerk, “but I’ll takes what gifts the Mistress gives me, eh?”

The icy pressure flared again in my chest, at the base of my throat, spreading like frost. I tasted the air from the night of the Fire three years before, felt the Fire itself burning cold deep inside me. I sucked in a hard, painful breath of air in shock.

And then my breath was cut off.

Read an excerpt from The Cracked Throne, book two of the Throne of Amenkor series.

Read an excerpt from The Vacant Throne, book three of the Throne of Amenkor series.

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