I've read a lot of Bernard Cornwell (everything but most of the 'Sharpe' novels, although I have read one of two of those a long time ago). I've always enjoyed his work, I find it very engaging.
'Fools and Mortals' is a new facet for him; an Elizabethan era drama. I found the intro chapter very engaging, a great hook (the epitome of what 'the late lamented 'strongest start competition' on tNBW was all about?).
Within the opening snippet there is a narrator character describing their own death in the first person, after the fact.
At first the reader thinks, 'what the hell?' but if I post more of it you'll see the context and the literary cleverness of it (which is IMO charming).
I died just after the clock in the passageway struck nine.
There are those who claim that Her Majesty, Elizabeth, by the grace of God, Queen of England, France, and of Ireland, will not allow clocks to strike the hour in her palaces. Time is not allowed to pass for her. She has defeated time. But that clock struck. I remember it.
I counted the bells. Nine. Then my killer struck.
And I died.
My brother says there is only one way to tell a story. ‘Begin,’ he says in his irritatingly pedantic manner, ‘at the beginning. Where else?
I see I have started a little too late, so we shall go back to five minutes before nine, and begin again.
Imagine, if you will, a woman. She is no longer young, nor is she old. She is tall, and, I am constantly told, strikingly handsome. On the night of her death she is wearing a gown made from the darkest blue velvet, embroidered with a mass of silver stars, each star studded with a pearl. Panels of watered silk, pale lavender in colour, billow through the open-fronted skirt as she moves. The same expensive silk lines her sleeves, the lavender showing through slits cut into the star-studded velvet. The skirt brushes the floor, hiding her delicate slippers, which are cut from an antique tapestry. Such slippers were uncomfortable, tapestry shoes always art unless lined with linen or, better, satin. She wears a ruff, high at the back and starched stiff, and above A her striking face is framed by raven-black hair, which is pinned into elaborate coils and rolls, all looped with strings of pearls to match the necklace that hangs down her bodice. A coronet of silver, again decorated with pearls, shows her high rank. Her pale face shimmers with a strange, almost unearthly glow, reflecting the light from the flames of a myriad candles, while her eyes are darkened, and her lips reddened. She has a straight back, and throws her hips forward and pushes her shoulders back so that her silk-clad bosom, which is neither too large nor vanishingly small, draws the eye. She draws many eyes that night for she is, as I am frequently told, a hauntingly beautiful woman.
The beautiful woman is in the company of two men and a younger woman, one of whom is her killer, though she does not yet know it. The younger woman is dressed every bit as beautifully as the older, if anything her bodice and skirt are even more expensive, bright with pale silks and precious stones. She has fair hair piled high, and a face of innocent loveliness, though that is deceptive, for she is pleading for the older woman's imprisonment and disfigurement. She is the older woman's rival in love, and, being younger and no less beautiful, she will win this confrontation. The two men listen, amused, as the younger woman insults her rival, and then watch as she picks up a heavy iron stand that holds four candles. She dances, pretending that the iron stand is a man. The candles flicker and smoke, but none goes out. The girl dances gracefully, puts the stand down, and gives one of the men a brazen look. If thou would'st know me,' she says archly, 'then thou would'st know my grievance.'
'Know you?' the older woman intervenes, 'oh, thou art known!' It is a witty retort, clearly spoken, though the older woman's voice is somewhat hoarse and breathy.
'Thy grievance, lady,' the shorter of the two men says, 'is my duty.' He draws a dagger. For a candle-flickering pause it seems he is about to plunge the blade into the younger woman, but then he turns and strikes at the older. The clock, a mechanical marvel that must be in the corridor just outside the hall, has started striking, and I count the bells.
The onlookers gasp.
The dagger slides between the older woman's waist and her right arm. She gasps. Then she staggers. In her left hand, hidden from the shocked onlookers, is a very small knife that she uses to pierce a pig's bladder concealed in a simple linen pouch hanging by woven silver ropes from her belt The belt is pretty, fashioned from cream-coloured kidskin with diamond-shaped panels of scarlet cloth on which small pearls glitter. When pricked, the pouch releases a gush of sheep's blood. I am slain,' she cries, 'alas! I am slain!' I did not write the line, so I am not responsible for the older woman stating what must already have been obvious. The younger woman screams, not in shock, but in exultation.
The older woman staggers some more, turning now so that the onlookers can see the blood. If we had not been in a palace, then we would not have used the sheep's blood, because the velvet gown was too rich and expensive, but for Elizabeth, for whom time does not exist, we must spend. So we spend. The blood soaks the velvet gown, hardly showing because the cloth is so dark, but plenty of blood stains the lavender silk, and spatters the canvas that has been spread across the Turkey carpets. The woman now sways, cries again, falls to her knees, and, with another exclamation, dies. In case anyone thinks she is merely fainting, she calls out two last despairing words, "I die!' And then she dies.
The clock has just struck nine times.
The killer takes the coronet from the corpse's hair, and, with elaborate courtesy, presents it to the younger woman. He then seizes the dead woman's hands, and, with unnecessary force, drags her from view. 'Her body here we'll leave,' he says loudly, grunting with the effort of pulling the corpse to moulder and to time's eternity.' He hides the woman behind a tall screen, which mostly hides a door at the back of the stage. The screen is deco-rated with embroidered panels showing entwined red and white roses springing from two leafy vines.
A pox on you,' the dead woman says softly. 'Piss on your bollocks,' her killer whispers, and goes back to where the audience is motionless and silent, shocked by the sudden death of such dark beauty.
I was the older woman.
The room where I have just died is lit by countless candles, but behind the screen it is shadowed dark as death. I crawled to the half open door and wriggled through into the antechamber, taking care not to disturb the door Asa the top of which can be seen above the rosy screen.
Gawd help us, Richard,' Jean said to me, speaking softly. She brushed a hand down my beautiful skirt that was stained with sheep's blood. 'What a mess!'
Will it wash out?' I asked, standing.
It might,' she said dubiously, 'but it will never be the same again, will it? Pity that.' jean is a good woman, a widow, and our seamstress. `Here, let me wet the silk: She went to fetch a jug of water and a cloth.